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Laughing on the Other Side of Your Face

This is a strange expression, often heard in the form: "You'll be laughing on the other side of your face [when X happens]." But what does it mean and where does it come from?

Its meaning is straightforward enough. To laugh on (or out of) the other side of your face (or the wrong side of your face, or mouth) is to experience a humbling reversal of fortune – to have your happiness or amusement change to sadness, annoyance, hurt, disappointment, etc. There is often an implication that the change is deserved.

The expression can be used in a threatening or vengeful way, e.g., "I'll make you laugh on the other side of your face!", which is similar to "I'll wipe that smile off your face!" Jenny at Yahoo! Answers reports: "In Dublin, where I grew up, it meant you wre [sic] going to get a good whack on the side of your gob!! lol." The image of a violent action knocking a cheeky smirk away – right across the face or entirely off it, Picasso-style – is exploited literally in cartoons, and is acknowledged in Graeme Donald's Dictionary of Modern Phrase:

It might be that, since mocking laughter usually issues from one side of a twisted mouth, the expression implies a threat to twist the mouth to the other side by administering a blow.

But the laughter isn't necessarily mocking, and the comeuppance is often non-violent. The phrase is commonly used in a situation where person A is simply pleased or confident about something, and person B finds A's complacency inappropriate or inopportune. B believes that things will change and that A will not be amused for long. So B says something like, "You'll soon be laughing on the other side of your face."

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says the phrase is "used to tell someone that although they are pleased now, they will not be pleased later when things do not happen as they expected or planned"; the OED offers a concise equivalent, that an other-side-of-the-face laugher is "discomfited after premature exultation." Brief definitions at Brewer's, Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Macmillan support these senses, as does the following entry at Random House:

to undergo a chastening reversal, as of glee or satisfaction that is premature; be ultimately chagrined, punished, etc.; cry: She’s proud of her promotion, but she’ll laugh out of the other side of her mouth when the work piles up.

It's not uncommon in literary contexts, especially in dialogue. You can see it used to various but related ends in Death of a Salesman, The King of Ragtime, The Epic of Latin America, Freaks and Follies of Fabledom, War Plays by Women, and The Fall of Fort Sumter, or, Love and War in 1860–61 (“I’ll make the whole country laugh on the other side of their mouth”). Searching for variations in Google Books will turn up many more examples.

The second question – Where does it come from? – is unresolved, as far as I can tell. It's quite an old idiom, dating back to the late 1700s at least. But its very familiarity obscures the bizarre conceit of this anatomical metaphor. Laughing on the other side of your face: what are we to make of this? Is it a reference to Janus? To the masks of comedy and tragedy? On the Yahoo! Answers page, Grannyjill, noting that people don’t just use the left or right side of their face when they laugh, wonders: “So what other side? The side next to the bones?”

My query on Twitter led to a few replies and ideas, but nothing definitive. Embedded in the phrase is an inversion of the fates, a foretelling of the fall that follows pride. Maybe the cartoons have it right, and it's more directly literal, and rooted in violence. Anecdotally I've seen it associated with parental discipline several times. Pet theories, however (im)plausible or outlandish, would be welcome.

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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 13th 2011, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Sante J. Achille (L Aquila Italy)
Hi Stan,
I love these travels and historical narrations - saying and proverbs are eternal: I am bilingual (English/Italian). My father is from a small village in the mountains not far from where I live (L'Aquila - might of recall we were struck by a bad earthquake in 2009). When he was younger and well he always had a proverb for every occasion and he would always pull the right one out of his hat.

Today I use many of them, all fiting perfectly into our society: saying will outlive us all and always be relevant !
Thursday January 13th 2011, 2:16 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Interesting! Dutch:
- "Het lachen zal je vergaan" [Laughing will not last, you won't feel the urge of laughing], and also
- "groen lachen" in Flanders [laugh green[ly]), " geel lachen" in the Netherlands [laugh yellow(ly)].
Thursday January 13th 2011, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Sante. Thanks for your comment. Ireland too is blessed with a rich store of proverbs and traditional sayings (in both Irish and Irish English), and I share your enthusiasm for them.

Thomas: Thank you for sharing those phrases. Groen lachen and geel lachen are, I guess, similar in meaning to a jaundiced smile in English.
Thursday January 13th 2011, 12:27 PM
Comment by: MICHAEL C. (ATHENS, GA)
Hi Stan,
I am a newbie to the world of studying vocabulary, phrasiology, etc. Although I consider myself well educated, and worldly for the most part, I have spent my entire adult life toiling under the masters of the business world, without much use or time for stretching my vocabulary and discovering its origins.

I hereby declare that I am bowled over, completely fascinated, and utterly addicted to this site, which I only recently stumbled upon.

Further this article and all of the site's content is very captivating to me.

I am now worried about focusing on my career for the remainder of my working years :-).

Bravo to all of you who contribute to this incredible site!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Thursday January 13th 2011, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Wendy H. (Aloha, OR)
This phrase always niggles at me for all the reasons in the article. I had always wondered if it played on the old "smile turned upside down" notion: "That smile will be on the other side of your face" being a reference to a vertical displacement - if your smile turns to a frown due to the predicted change in circumstances, and you then turn your head upside down (i.e. to the 'other side'), that frown will look like a smile? Hmmm...
Friday January 14th 2011, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I like to think of it as, 'you'll be knocked hard in the face by reality, which will move the smile off the front, and around to the other side'.

Most likely not 'upside down', otherwise why not just say, 'you'll be smiling upside down'. It is the smile that is moving, not the head that is flipping. Also note that the whole smile is moving, not changing shape. Nice imagery there.

My Irish-American father also used to say, (kiddingly) to us, 'I'll give ye the back of me hand', a phrase which again uses a reversed body part, and implied violence. (When he actually did give us the back of his hand, few words preceded it).
Friday January 14th 2011, 5:25 PM
Comment by: agoddessinlove (I wander far and wide, CA)
Thanks for this one. For some reason the phrase just makes me laugh harder and smile broader every time I hear it. My mother used to say "wipe that smirk off your face or I will do it for you." Giving her the hand of God, if you will. As I have grown older I realized that many of these moments she was trying to quell my hubris before I found myself hurt and broken hearted. Oh, how our parents love us to a fault.

The reality of life being a harsh lesson dealer is all a matter of what sort of glasses you are wearing it seems. And it is funny to me how insistent we humans can be on ensuring everyone remains resigned to "how things are." As if miracles never happen and the possible was never impossible before it came to pass.

I believe that I will be trying to get something to make me smile out the other side of my face for the rest of my life. If this means I will always be attempting the impossible.
Saturday January 15th 2011, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Michael: The Visual Thesaurus is an excellent place to indulge in a healthy addiction to vocabulary! I wish you the best of luck balancing work and pleasure.

Wendy: That's an interesting suggestion. The upside-down smile is certainly similar in meaning, but it seems to depend less on the presence and judgement of another person. Both phrases imply a physiognomic displacement (or transformation), as you say, albeit along different axes.

Richard: Reality as a brute force? I like that. Thanks for reminding me of 'I'll give ye the back of me hand'. It's remarkably euphemistic, as are the variants 'I'll show you the back of my hand' and 'Do you want to see the back of my hand?'

agoddessinlove: Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Yes, it's a popular phrase among parents, often used protectively as a form of tough love, I think: trying to prevent young ones from getting carried away with their self-satisfaction, as they sometimes tend to do.
Friday June 10th 2011, 6:39 PM
Comment by: dr phillip D. (kansas city, MO)
It might be very hard to laugh symmetrically if one side of your face has been bashed in...that's my take!

Saturday June 11th 2011, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
That's true! Symmetry in any case is only ever approximate in anatomy.

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