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I'm betting that most people know exactly what I am talking about. It happens when you're scrolling through some social media and you see something that is only a little funny. It may catch you by surprise. It's a single utterance, a single, quick, guttural exhalation, typically through the mouth, but I can imagine that for some it goes through the nose. I would consider it a type of laugh, but JUST BARELY. I hope this makes sense as to what I am saying.

Now, which words don't work. First there is "giggle". Giggle goes well beyond this laugh. The OED defines giggle as:

To laugh continuously in a manner not uproarious, but suggestive either of foolish levity or uncontrollable amusement.

"Chuckle" is close, but the definition appears to assign a higher level happiness than the word I want. The OED gives the following definition:

An act of chuckling; a laugh of triumph and exultation: formerly applied to a loud laugh, but now chiefly to a suppressed and inarticulate sound by which exultation is shown.

The problem I am having is with "exultation is shown." The OED definition of exultation is:

The action or state of exulting or rejoicing greatly; triumph, joyousness, rapturous delight; an instance of the same.

And, this is very slight amusement. It is definitely an inarticulate sound, but it is not suppressed, and sometimes, oftentimes, amused contempt or disbelief is shown.

"Snigger" is defined as:

To laugh in a half-suppressed, light or covert manner; to snicker.

This makes me think of how we used to laugh at things behind our teachers' backs. "Teehee", "twitter", "titter", "snirt", "snirdle", "sniggle", "snitter", "snicker" and "whicker", all talk about laughing in a suppressed manner. This is not a suppressed laugh, it is a laugh that just BARELY gets out. "Neicher", "nicher", or "nicker" appear to be regional synonyms of snigger.

The closest word I know of is "chortle". The OED gives the following explanation for chortle:

A factitious word introduced by the author of Through the Looking-Glass, and jocularly used by others after him, apparently with some suggestion of chuckle, and of snort.

So, if Lewis Carrol created the word, how did he use it? The quotation given is:

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.

The most recent quotation, for some reason (on other words in the OED, I have seen quotations from as early as 2007), goes all the way back to 1889 in The Referee which I THINK is the Weekly Referee. The quote is:

Many present on Boxing Night fully expected that when he appeared he would chortle a chansonette or two.

"Chansonette" is French for "little song" or something like that. If you can chortle words, this does not fit. There are 4 other quotes, and I can do all of them and explain why they do not fit (or in one case no context is given; and no year is given for the paper, so I don't know how I'd how I'd find the paper). If someone is interested in that let me know (everyone in Colorado gets the OED free through the Denver Public Library), but I fear that may get tedious. If someone wants the other 4 let me know in a comment. For now, I will assert that it doesn't fit.

No other laugh synonym comes close. For example, neither "keckle" nor "cackle" work, both share the definition,

A short spasmodic laugh; a chuckle.

"Chuck", an obsolete synonym for chuckle that died out almost 400 years ago does not work when looking at the example quotations given, such as one talking about your shoulders being sore after. "Shuckle", another obsolete word seems to be a synonym of chuckle. "Yock" means,

A laugh, esp. a loud or hearty one; a burst of laughter.

A colloquial synonym for laugh is "hoot". The only definition given is "to laugh". In my experience, however, hoot is used to describe more rambunctious laughter. "Guffaw" describes a boisterous laughter. "Gawf" is "A loud noisy laugh". "Roar" doesn't fit for obvious reasons. "Ha ha", "haw-haw", "hee-haw", and "yaw-haw", all describe loud laughs (they're all in the OED). "Horse-laugh" is "A loud coarse laugh". "Split" can mean to laugh uncontrollably, while shake can mean to shake with laughter. "Kink", means "To laugh, esp. immoderately or uncontrollably" and appears to not have been used in more than a hundred years. "Roll", which dates from 1819 means to move about with laughter. "Pee" can mean to pee with laughter. NONE of these fit, and I cannot find any other synonyms.

If there is no specific word for this, I think "chuff" should be used. Big cats, tigers and lions (but not mountain lions, they purr like housecats) make a similar noise when they are happy (analogous to cats purring). It's not exactly the same. Obviously, a lion has much more bass when it chuffs, and tigers sound like they're rolling their "Rs" when they do it, and they repeat the sound, but still, I can't think of any other word that describes this better. But that is why I am here. Is there already a good word for this that I have missed?

UPDATE ON THE ANSWERS

While I do greatly appreciate all of the answers and engagement, none of the answers given fit exactly, for a variety of reasons.

First, this is not a "snort", as a snort is through the nasal passages. While I am sure that some people do snort in the same situation when I would "chuff", this is NOT a nasal exhalation (upon further thought, maybe I do snort in rare instances, such as maybe if I am eating or drinking something when the humor hits me). Secondarily (not quite as important due to the flexibility of language), snorts are typically more forceful and audible than this. Finally (again not too important due to language plasticity), in my experience, when someone "snorts with laughter" or "snorts in amusement", this typically refers to loud, uncontrolled laughter that results in accidental, usually embarrassing, snorts.

"Half-chuckle" is pretty close but, given the examples provided, half-chuckle seems to either have have a similar connotation as snicker, in that it is a suppressed laugh, or it appears that the connotation is a forced, insincere laugh. Again, due to the flexibility of language, this may be the closest, though.

"Huff" is also close, as it is almost an oral version of snort. However, huff already has a negative connotation to the word. The OED's earliest definition of huff, dating to 1582, simply means "to blow"; however, in 1599, it took on the alternative meaning of:

A fit of petulance or offended dignity caused by an affront, real or supposed; esp. in in a huff, to take huff.

So, the connotation of huff is the opposite of what I am looking for. Again, I know this sounds like a broken record but, due to language's impermanence, this is only a small problem.

"Chuff", at least all of the definitions I can find, refer to the loud, regular bursts of steam emitted by train engines, thus, it's onomatopoeic. This suggests a much louder exhalation.

"Puff", again, is very close, but there are some issues. First, I checked the OED, MWD, Dictionary.com, and Google, and none of them mention any kind of jocularity in reference to the word. And only one of them mentions its use in scorn or disdain. Also, so far as I can recall, whenever puff is used as a verb to describe some sort of communication, it had a negative connotation, that the speaker was somehow upset.

The person who mentions the word "scoff" explains why it does not fit.

"I blew air through my nose" fails because, first, it is a 6-word phrase. Second, it is a synonym for snort, and again this is oral.

"Perfunctory laugh" does not work because the amusement is genuine, but it is also close, because perfunctory can also mean "superficial, trivial".

"Bark" does not work, because it suggests a "loud" noise.

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8 Answers 8

31

You may be looking for the word snort, defined by TfD as:

to exhale forcibly through the nostrils, making a characteristic noise

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  • 4
    This confirms my belief that the number of upvotes one of my answers receives is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spent writing it.
    – alphabet
    Oct 23, 2023 at 4:33
  • 3
    IMO snort described a different kind of laugh than described since it is distinctively through the nostrils. Oct 23, 2023 at 7:29
  • 1
    Snorting is already commonly associated with laughing so hard, that you make a snorting noise, like a pig. From your link, "1. (Physiology) (intr) to exhale forcibly through the nostrils, making a characteristic noise". wisdomanswer.com/what-causes-a-person-to-snort-when-laughing Oct 23, 2023 at 9:00
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    Jack Aidley is correct. This is NOT a snort . A snort goes through the nasal passages, and while I am sure there are people who snort at these mildly humorous situations while I do an oral exhalation, there is a difference, and therefore this doesn't fit. I admit, it is close in the way that "huff", "chortle", and "half-chuckle", but not quite there. Oct 23, 2023 at 17:39
11

Googled "half-chuckle" and there are a lot of hits. The contexts surrounding 'half-chuckle' can be quite versatile. Thanks for the question. Definitely aware of when I half-chuckle now. :}

https://www.rileyv.com/legallyblondeaf-blog/law-school-casual-attire

"...glancing at each other and doing that awkward half-chuckle that people do when they're thinking something, but don't want to say it."

A weird half-chuckle left my throat

paltry half-chuckle

with a half-chuckle/eyeroll combo

paused, gave a half-chuckle and shook his head

with a dismissive half-chuckle

delivered with a delighted half chuckle.

“What?” I asked with a half chuckle, trying to mask my extreme shock.

I rewarded him with a half-chuckle but had he actually looked into my eyes he would have seen that they were devoid of sincerity.

I half chuckle, half snort and think, “No joke. It still does.”

a snorted half-chuckle

made me involuntarily emit a half-chuckle.

https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/brand-the-perfect-man-joke-again/

"And you must agree with these assessments of yourselves, or this stupid joke can’t even get the sad little New-Yorker-cartoon half-chuckle it’s going for."

he half-chuckled but meant every word

Jim affected a half chuckle but his eyes looked worried.

That joke...I give it a tired half chuckle and a thumbs down.

[From a movie review:] https://www.swapadvd.com/Open-Season-2-Blu-Ray/dvd/207127/

"So here's the humor count: Half chuckle 10 minutes into movie; another half chuckle around 23 and again 45 minutes. Fell asleep between 23 and 45 so there may be more."

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  • Half-chuckle is interesting but ambiguous also. It kinda evokes a shorter chuckle (like he-he), not something down to a single guttural exhalation. It still has the characteristics of a chuckle.
    – ermanen
    Oct 22, 2023 at 6:19
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    There is a discussion about "half-chuckle" in Writing Forums and there are many different opinions: writingforums.org/threads/half-chuckling.131448
    – ermanen
    Oct 22, 2023 at 6:28
  • @ermanen - The descriptors around 'half-chuckle' take away the ambiguity, for me. I became taken with how flexible the term was. A half-chuckle can be guttural or not, heavy or light. A chuckle is a short laugh, but the written 'sound' of a half-chuckle comes from the context of what elicits the half-chuckle. In the examples, I don't have a problem with 'hearing' the kind of half-chuckle described. Is there a better word somewhere? Maybe.
    – tblue
    Oct 22, 2023 at 13:59
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Huff is a good option within a context, which is not specific by itself, but it can be used more vividly as huffed a small laugh or huffed a short laugh. You can find many results in Google Books if you search these phrases: * , *

Wiktionary definitions of the noun and the verb huff:

noun: A heavy breath; a grunt or sigh.
verb: (intransitive) To breathe heavily.

Puff and chuff can be used similary but the phrases puffed a small laugh and chuffed a small laugh are much less common in Google Books. Chuff usually describes a more loud and forceful sound by itself; and here is a good description from vocabulary.com:

To chuff is to breathe with an audible puff sound. You might chuff in the cold air as you jog down a frozen winter street.

Anyone who huffs and puffs can be said to chuff, although the old-fashioned verb is often used to describe the sharp puffing sound made by a steam engine. You might read in a novel, "She heard the train chuff as it pulled out of the station into the night."

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  • I think this is the closest. The problem I have with it is that because of huff's popular meaning, you will always need several more words for context to differentiate this, jocular huff, from the much more popular frustrated/distressed huff. Oct 23, 2023 at 17:35
  • What is unclear and in need of clarification? Please comment on the question (I'll get to it more quickly) what is unclear and you need clarified and I will do my best. Oct 23, 2023 at 17:36
  • @JimmyG. Thank you for the feedback. 1. Huff doesn't work by itself, I've made it clear, but I think no single word will work by itself without descriptors. 2. Comments under the question were deleted but there is a discussion under the answer snort and you can clarify the points mentioned there, like if only mouth is involved and if it is only a puff of air etc. An example sound could help too but it would be difficult to find. 3. To me, snort was not the answer but it looks like many thought it is the answer. You could clarify that it is not the answer if you agree.
    – ermanen
    Oct 23, 2023 at 17:55
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    I edited the answer to clarify why the given answers do not work specifically. Oct 23, 2023 at 19:29
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While this is not exactly your use case (where the amusement is genuine but mild) one should probably mention scoff.

The short exhalation not quite qualifying as a chuckle is exactly what one would do to dismiss something with contempt that does not even rise to the level of forming proper words like "my a*se".

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I've seen the phrase "I blew air through my nose." on Reddit frequently enough that I would say it's somewhat established. I wouldn't use it in fiction, but in the context of immediate reply to something humorous in Internet conversation, it works well.

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I would consider it a type of laugh, but JUST BARELY.

You seem to be describing a perfunctory laugh.

OED perfunctory

1.a. Of an action, deed, work, etc.: done merely as a matter of duty, form, or routine, and so without interest, care, or enthusiasm; carried out with a minimum of effort; formulaic, mechanical; superficial, trivial.

2000 Delicate fruits and berries get a perfunctory rinse with tap water. Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Journal Sentinel (Nexis) 19 April 1g

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Would you consider 'whiff'?

noun

  • a slight gust or puff of wind, air [..] or the like
  • a single inhalation or exhalation of air [..] or the like
  • a slight outburst

verb

  • to blow or come in whiffs

I realize this has naught to do with amusement, but at least it could describe the "single, quick utterance" through both mouth and nose:

He whiffed semi-amused.

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    This is a fantastic candidate but suffers the same flaws as the many other suggested options. It requires inventing a new connotation for the word. I do like this one though. Oct 23, 2023 at 21:27
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I would refer to a sudden, short, sharp, fairly loud "ha!" of laughter as "a bark of laughter".

https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/bark_1 has it as the third meaning:

  1. a short loud sound made by a gun or a voice
    • a bark of laughter

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