I'd like to make a few observations regarding the word "ha."

Thanks to Chris Matthews, the engaging yet often bombastic host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, this laughable little term has popped into the media lexicon. Every time Matthews shouts "Ha!" his guests seem genuinely startled, much as they would if the host inadvertently let out a loud belch during the interview.

When former Governor Mike Huckabee said he was working on a list of rivals he'd like to make disappear, Matthews responded: "Ha!" When Virginia Republican Kate Obenshain confirmed she would never vote for a Democrat, Matthews replied: "Ha!" And when Barack Obama conceded he wasn't much of a bowler, Matthews knocked him over with a forceful: "Ha!"

Webster's New World says ha is, "an exclamation of wonder, surprise, anger, triumph, etc." - which covers quite a lot of territory.

Writers often use "ha, ha, ha" when alluding to a laugh, but genuine laughter can't really be written out, just as you can't spell the sound of a sneeze, which is why writers settle for "ah-choo." In fact, if you were to say the sounds "ha, ha" it would convey sarcasm - sort of like saying, "yeah, right."

On the other hand, you might say, "ah, ha." But that's not an expression of mirth, it's an announcement of discovery, best delivered emphatically: "Ah, ha!"

There is a sly dramatic laugh usually written, "heh, heh, heh." But that expression is most often used by cartoon characters.

Jackie Gleason, in his Ralph Kramden role, was fond of bellowing, "Har-har-hardy, har-har!" Alas, you don't hear that much anymore.

Whenever Santa Claus laughs, it's a jolly "ho, ho, ho." But as Don Imus proved, a broadcaster can get in serious trouble if he misapplies "Ho!"

Maybe it was all the discussion about Hillary Clinton's "cackle" - much of it by the "Hardball" gang - that inspired Matthews to be more daring in his use of "Ha!" At first it was difficult to tell if it was more a bodily function, like a yawn, but lately it's clear that Matthews uses his pet utterance as a tool to punctuate conversation.

I never paid much attention to the word ha until a few weeks ago when I sent a column to an editor at The Chicago Tribune, and she e-mailed back, "Ha!" - which I took to mean she liked it. Then I sent the piece to a friend in Massachusetts and, believe it or not, his feedback also began, "Ha!" And the thing is, the column never even mentioned Chris Matthews.

For years when Matthews let out a "Ha!" it appeared in MSNBC's transcripts only as "(laughter)." Nowadays the transcripts actually say: "MATTHEWS: Ha!"

When Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha was a guest, Matthews used it to cut him off in mid-sentence. That's when I realized he has perfected more than one “Ha!” There's the genuine-laugh "Ha!"; the fake-laugh "Ha!"; plus the wait-just-a-darn-minute "Ha!" - the one he used on Murtha.

I'm not suggesting Matthews has the social influence of, say, "Seinfeld," which taught many of us to say, "yada, yada, yada." But as the campaign drags on through the summer, I imagine you'll being hearing "Ha!" with surprising frequency.

And what would Chris Matthews say about these disclosures? If you don’t know, you haven’t been reading carefully. “Ha!”

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.


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