Let’s start with the fundamentals. The basic unit of written laughter, which we’ve long known from books and comics, is “ha.” The “ha” is like a Lego, a building block, with which we can construct more elaborate hilarity. It sounds like a real laugh. Ha! The “ha” is transparent, like “said.” If you’re chatting or texting, a single “ha” means that a joke has occurred, and you’re respectfully tipping your hat to it, but that’s all it deserves. If I say something hilarious and I get one “ha,” it’s a real kick in the teeth. If I make a mild observation, a “ha” is just great.
The feel-good standard in chat laughter is the simple, classic “haha”: a respectful laugh. “Haha” means you’re genuinely amused, and that maybe you laughed a little in real life. (The singsong Nelson Muntz-style “ha ha,” of course, is completely different—we don’t do this to our friends. There’s also the sarcastic “ha ha,” a British colleague reminded me: he’s used to reading “ha ha” as “Oh, ha ha,” as in, Aren’t you a wag. “But I’m learning to read it as good,” he said. Poor guy.) “Hahaha” means that you’re really amused: now you’re cooking. More than three “ha”s are where joy takes flight. When you’re doing this, you’re laughing at your desk and your co-workers can hear you, or you’re texting with both hands, clacking and laughing away. Somebody has been naughty and fun: a scandalous remark, a zinger, a gut laugh, the high-grade stuff. If things get totally bananas, you might throw a few “j”s in there, because you’re too incapacitated by joy to type properly.
Then there’s the mysterious “hehe.” “Hehe” is a younger person’s e-laugh. My stepsister has used it, and she’s a person who also says “hiiii”—but, reassuringly to me, she’s also one of the best hahahahaha-ers in the business. A friend who’s in his thirties and savvy, with friends of all ages, uses “hehe.” I find it charming—he’s a perfect speller, and he’s a lively, tidy writer, and his “hehe”s are a strange mystery. I know what they mean: friendly, somewhat sneaky giggling at a shared joke. But why the single “e”?
I consider “hehe” to be the “woah” of laughter—an odd but common enough misspelling of a common term of social communication. I think it’s “hee hee,” our conspiratorial buddy, sweetly shortened to “haha” length in a slightly bizarre way. Is it more a masculine “hee hee”—literally a bunch of “he”s? Is it a squished-up “heh,” with some filigree? Is it a cross between “haha,” “hee hee,” and “heh”?
Hahahe! Wait, is that allowed?