How People Write Down Their Laughter Has Changed Over Time

“Hehe” means something different than “heehee”

LOL mug
CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters/Corbis

Internet slang, textspeak, SMS language, whatever you call it the short abbreviations that pepper digital communications are still new enough that the uninitiated can stumble. Even laughter, a human universal, can become unintelligable. A sea of "LOLs" and "ROTFLs" can feel like a different language. Some oft for the more straighforward "hahaha" or "heehee." But as Sarah Larson writes for The New Yorker, even this form of textual hilarity can get nuanced. 

As might be expected, there isn’t a standard answer to decoding written laughter. Larson works through the differences between "haha" (genuine amusement), "ha ha," (maybe a bit sarcastic), "hahaha" (really amused) and more than three "ha’s" ("joy takes flight," as she writes). Then she goes into the variations:

There are other terms in the lexicon. “Heh” is for a sort of satisfyingly good point, a nice moment shared, with a possible hint of down-home vulgarity. “Ho ho” indicates that someone needs a mild scolding after a bad joke…

But "hehe" has different meanings depending on the typist, Larson found. 

One user said that she thought of “hehe” as “more of an evil giggle and less of a straightforward crack-up.” That’s definitely a hee-hee. Her friend thinks of it as “a more covert laugh” and pronounces it “heh heh,” and said that it can be “evil or private and shared.” Was it like “hee hee” and “heh heh” smashed together? I asked. Yes, it was, she said. An adventurous writer in his mid-thirties agreed that it was a mischievous laugh, pronounced “heh heh,” and said that he uses it to indicate that he’s being “super-casual,” and as a “sort of knot to tie off a back-and-forth exchange.” If he senses that there’s a “small amount of awkwardness” in the exchange, he uses “hehehe” to dissolve it or to inoculate both parties against it. He waved his hands around while describing this, and I imagined a baker using frosting to cover imperfections in a cake.

"Hehe" Larson writes, is used more by a younger set. But "hehe" isn’t new, just recently popular. Lauren Collister, writing for The Conversation, points out an instance of "hehe" in a Latin grammar book that dates back to 1000. "Haha appears in Chaucer 300 years later, while ha, ha, he can be found in the works of Shakespeare," she adds.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows users to search for words and phrases in all of the books that Google has scanned, it is evident that hehe – along with haha and hohohas been in use for quite some time.

If you look closely at the examples from this search, you’ll see a number of misreads of the text by the search function (for example, hehe is often confused with the name of the Greek goddess Hebe). However, you’ll also see texts from plays and scripts, along with dialogue in novels and even dictionaries of other spoken languages. All of these representations of laughter are connected to words being spoken out loud.

Of course, this just covers the variation of textual laughter in English. Expand the discussion to other languages and the chance to individually express every variation of chortle, guffaw, giggle and snicker becomes apparent. Since the number 5 is pronounced "ha" in Thai, for example, some Thai speakers write "55555" in place of "hahahahaha," Megan Garber explains at The Atlantic, following a Reddit thread that explored, among other cultural Internet experiences, how to laugh on the web. In Spanish it’s "jajaja" because the "j" is pronounced like an English "h." 

Yet each of the languages cited seem to be just the basic "haha." Over at Wordreference, there’s a discussion exploring all the many variations of laughter in different languages. In Turkish "hahaha" is typical, but "keh keh" or "kah kah" is "sneaky-ish" laughter and "nihaha" is evil laughter. Ultimately, all this variety lets texters and chatters express their individuality, Collister writes at The Conversation,. So newly armed with that knowledge, let loose the "heihei," the "huhuhuhuhs," and whatever else seems appropriate.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.