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Both, the oxford online dictionary and the cambridge online dictionary agree on that "chortle" is a synonym for "chuckle". Cambridge even lists it as the only synonym.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/chuckle

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/chuckle

Yet, when I read the definition, e.g., at oxford:

chuckle: Laugh quietly or inwardly.

chortle: Laugh in a noisy, gleeful way.

Given these definitions, I don't think declaring these words synonymes is the best idea, or at least there would be words way closer to the respective meaning, because chuckle is a quiet or inward laugh, while chortle is a noisy, gleeful laugh (and noisy and quiet almost seem like opposites to me).

So why is chortle listed as the main synonym, instead of, say, giggle, titter, or snicker?

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Welcome to the wonderful word of 'synonyms' in English. Here's a thing about synonyms - most of them aren't really synonyms, if you take the simple definition most people will reel out for the word synonym. People will say that two words are synonyms if they mean the same thing. However, the Cambridge definition of synonym is (emphasis added):

"a word or phrase that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in the same language"

So, words that are described as synonyms may have similar meanings with only a difference of nuance, or they might have overlapping meanings that are identical in some contexts, or they might just have closely related meanings that are distinct in detail.

Add to this the wide range of terms we have for laughter, many of which are to some extent onomatopoeic, and there's recipe for confusion. So much so that one man's chortle is another's snicker.

To me, a chortle is a restrained laugh, but not as restrained as a chuckle. A giggle is also a restrained laugh, but is associated with stereotypes of feminine behaviour. Titter and snicker are also restrained laughs, but most consist of percussive or toneless noises related to movement of lips/tongue/throat and without the vocal chords being used.

And another English speaker will understand them slightly differently. Really, mostly we know how to use them based on what they imply other than the actual sound made. A chuckle or chortle is relatively mature and suitable for a grown man. A giggle is supposedly feminine, or associated with small children. A titter or snicker is more expected from an immature person, or when laughing about something that is immature.

  • Thank you! Why are such nuances never included in the dictionary? It would be much easier to understand, if, e.g., "giggle" would include that it is typically the laughing of little girls. – gexicide Feb 28 at 6:24
  • Probably because the nuances aren't consistent across dialects, would be my guess. – SamBC Feb 28 at 9:03

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