Why do people think the French say ‘hon hon hon’ when they laugh?

Why do people think the French say 'hon hon hon' when they laugh?
Photo: 'Til there was you/ Tumblr
Roll out the most grotesque caricature of a Frenchmen - stripey jumper, onions and beret in place - and before long he will utter a 'hon hon hon', but where did we get the idea that French people laugh like that?

If you were watching coverage of the US elections over the weekend you may have seen this hilarious clip, in which an American man interrupts the French TV channel BFM's live broadcast to share some of his favourite French clichés – including a hearty 'hon hon hon'.

 

But the man – named as Meka by US publications – is not alone in his belief that hon hon hon is a sound commonly heard in France. The top definition of Urban Dictionary for “hon hon hon” is “the sound of French laughter, in all its nasally glory.”

The “n” isn't actually pronounced, but it signals how the “o” should sound, (so definitely not “ho ho ho” – that catchphrase is taken).

The sound has well and truly permeated pop culture, no stereotypical representation of a French person seems to be complete without it, from New Zealand comedy show Flight of the Conchords to The Simpsons.

 

(article continues below)

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Videos above abound online and the 'hon hon hon' has also taken meme form.
 
Photo: canihascheeseburger
 
But have you ever heard a French person laugh like this in real life? No, nor have we. 
 
So where did we get this impression from? 
 
There doesn't seem to be an 'official' explanation of this, but theories abound.
 
The most popular is that we in the English-speaking world got the idea from Maurice Chevalier, a French singer and entertainer, whose career spanned most of the 20th century. He made it in Hollywood and one of his most famous songs is “Thank heavens for little girls.”
 
His strong Parisian accent is pretty much the epitome of the typical French voice that we English speakers love to imitate, “like zees”.
 
Marc Milleseptcentcinquantesix/ Daily motion
 
Apparently, the “hon hon hon” was his signature laugh, and that's where we all got the idea from. 
 
“Maurice Chevalier might on one occasion have – perhaps while choking on an escargot? – uttered a sound that was unjustly mistaken for a laugh,” writes blogger Emily in the Glass
 
“Later, when paired with his accent in English, this sound must have become known as Maurice Chevalier’s French laugh and, as stereotypes go, soon it was simply the French laugh.”
 
Either way, the laugh made its way into Anglophone culture and has stuck there. It can be heard in Disney's 1989 film The Little Mermaid, a quintessential childhood film for many.
 
Chef Louis, a classically grotesque caricature of a Frenchman, even references Chevalier right at the beginning of his song, listen out for the “hon hon hon” at 0:30.
 
Video: 0bronwyn0's channel/ Youtube
 
Certainly if you manage to make a French person laugh (and having a bash at pronouncing some of these words might achieve that effect) you'll notice they sound nothing like Chef Louis.
 
And if you're trying to indicate laughter in a written communication ah ah or ha ha will do fine, or you can use MDR (mort de rire) the French equivalent of LOL.
 
But maybe you do know a French person who laughs like this? Or a better explanation of this weird myth? Let us know by emailing [email protected]
 
By Rose Trigg

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  1. I remember “Hon Hon Hon” from ‘Allo ‘Allo, well before Disney took it up for the Mermaid. One of the escaping RAF officers used the expression to simulate speaking French. According to wikipedia, the first episode went out in December 1982.

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