It’s just one thing laughing at another

U 18.1089-90: with his tall hat on him at the cricket match and a great big hole in his sock one thing laughing at the other

Molly remembers this line while she is thinking of Simon Dedalus (who is “such a criticiser”). But “one thing laughing at the other” turns outs not to be Mrs Bloom’s inspiration, but an expression that can be traced back to at least 1867:

The cook looked frightened. "Missis told me I might have a friend or two," she said, "and Mrs. Embden here, she made me a bit of jelly, so I got the other sweets, for I don't like to see one thing laughing at another." "In course not, Mrs. Evans," said 'Enery.

D. Richmond, "Lettice Moden" in The Children of Blessing (1867), p. 383

The phrase refers to an ill-assorted collection of things, or – in a negative construction, as in the case of the first Australian example below where “no one thing laughs at another” – a perfectly harmonious assemblage:

The garden, too, is in fine order, and at the time of our visit was ablaze with the floral beauties of the season. Of this homestead it may be truly said that "no one thing laughs at another". The woolshed, the woolroom, the store, the men’s quarters, the compact little cemetery, all bespeak a presiding mind dominated by the idea that "Order is Heaven’s first law".

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (N.S.W.: 1892), 20 October p. 3

Early references seem to be more numerous in Australian sources than in European ones:

The wardrobe should at all times contain presentable hats. A new hat can often precede important new clothes and thus brighten up a flagging costume, although it is not well to have "one thing laughing at another".

Woman’s World (Adelaide, South Australia) (1927), 24 January p. 4

But despite this, the expression seems to have enjoyed some continuity into the present:

Mr McFee […] Here we have an ancient house, and an ancient tradition, and they have gone and installed a modern fireplace. We have one thing laughing at another. I think it is time a little more imagination was used in developments of this sort. (Laughter.)

Report of Proceedings of Tynwald Court (Douglas, Isle of Man) (1955), 18 October p. 16/2

"The costume’s all right, Mrs Fitts but please don't look at the blouse. The blouse comes from Jinty's second-hand shop up Millbank. One thing's laughing at the other." Everyone rallied loyally to the defence of the blouse. The right note had been struck.

The Honest Ulsterman (1984), Autumn p. 70

"I've known Peter and Anthea to drink wine with steak and kidney pie. One thing laughing at the other, I'd say." "There are cheap wines." "Well, of course, Anthea wouldn't buy an expensive one."

Geraldine Jones Marks of Weakness (1988), p. 44

Harald Beck

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