“I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point,” Walter Shaub told the New York Times after he resigned as the head of the Office of Government Ethics earlier this month. Shaub felt the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest, inter alia, are severely undermining his office’s credibility and efficacy, and compelled him to seek toothier watchdog work elsewhere.
It’s powerful choice of words, but what, exactly, is the stock in laughingstock?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds laughingstock, an “object of derisive laughter or general ridicule,” in the early 1500s. The stock, here, appears to allude to an old use of the word for a “post” or “stake.” Offenders were once strapped to such stocks and whipped as punishment, hence a whipping stock. That particular phrase, however, isn’t attested until the early 1600s and only later extended to anyone frequently whipped. Still, we might imagine a laughingstock as the butt or target of mockery, just as a whip lashed the wrongdoer tied to a stock. And as we’ll see, many similar formations to whipping stock appear throughout the 16th century.
The word stock itself goes back to Old English, from a common Germanic root referring to “tree stump,” and sprouted a host of meanings in English, including the likes of livestock and stock market. Laughingstock also inspired many other, if now obscure or obsolete, –stock actions. These compounds which were especially popular in the 16th century, if the OED’s records are any measure. All definitions are from the OED, and the parenthetical date’s the earliest evidence the dictionary has for the term:
a jocular title given to one who is subjected to beating
a butt for flouting, an object of mockery
an object of open-mouthed wonder
an object of the people’s gaze; a person on whom others gaze or stare
an object of expressed opprobrium or scorn
An object of jest or ridicule; a laughing-stock
an object of loathing
a laughing stock
a butt of jokes, a laughing stock
an object of scoffing
an object for scolding
Scorning-stock (before 1586)
an object of scorn
Sporting-stock (before 1556)
a laughing stock; a butt of jokes
the object of stares; a person or thing likely to be stared at
a subject of talk
one upon whom torture is inflicted
Of all these terms, laughingstock is the oldest and really the only one to survive today. I, for one, think gaping-stock and talking-stock are due for a comeback. And perhaps in today’s social media environment, –stock compounding is ready for a revival, say, meme-stock, someone or something who becomes the object of viral internet memes?