• chortle •
chor-têl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: To laugh with a snort, spasmodically.
Notes: In fact, although this word is used quite often, no one knows exactly what it means; every dictionary has a different meaning. My sense of the word is that a chortle is a slightly suppressed laugh, but I am sure every English speaker has his or her own sense of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't even offer a meaning for it. My definition above is based on its origin (for which see Word History).
In Play: Some dictionaries claim that chortles are more often at someone else's expense: "Madeleine could not help but chortle when she saw Murine wearing a polka-dot shirt with striped pants." Others seem to think it an expression of unusual joy: "Franz chortled briefly upon reading his acceptance letter from Harvard, but then went right back to work." But then laughter of any sort is an expression of joy, hardly limited to chortle.
Word History: Today's Good Word is a rarity in that we can pinpoint its origin with absolute certainty. It was introduced by Lewis Carroll in his children's novel, Through the Looking Glass, published in 1872. Alice finds a book while she is watching the White King and opens it to a poem called Jabberwocky. The "Jabberwocky Song" contains the line "'O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' He chortled in his joy." The word is what Carroll called a portmanteau word and what linguists call a blend: a word made by combining two other words, in this case, chuckle and snort. (We thank Johannes Strand for the chortle he gave us all today by suggesting this very Good Word.)