Barrel of laughs


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Barrel of laughs'?

The source of abundant fun and enjoyment.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Barrel of laughs'?

‘A barrel of laughs’ is an archetypal example of what makes English such a rich language to speak and so frustrating for non-native speakers to learn – the idiom. Knowing the meaning of ‘barrel’ and ‘laughs’ is no help in deducing the meaning of the expression – which is the essential characteristic of idioms.

The expression began life as ‘a barrel of fun’ – ‘barrel’ in this context just meaning ‘lots of’. It is first cited in documents found in the USA. This entry in the 1890 edition of Dialect Notes, under the heading ‘A Word List from Montana’, is an early example:

barrel of fun, n. phr. A good time. “I had a barrel of fun when I went to Maccasin.”

By the early 20th century the expression had morphed into ‘a barrel of real laughs’ and most early examples of that come from the UK. Here’s an example from a newspaper review in the Burnley News, October 1924:

Thomas Meighan, the likeable Paramount star, is at the Savoy this week in “Woman Proof,”. It is a companion picture to “Back Home and Broke” with the same breezy fun, sharp satire and heart appeal, containing a “crackerjack” role for the star, with a barrel of real laughs.

The final transformation, into “a barrel of laughs” came a few years alter. Here’s another UK example, from an April 1932 advert for a stage show at the Apollo and Shaftesbury Theatre, in London’s theatre district. The text reads:

Here’s a barrel of laughs with the spigot open… Get under and get yours.

Trend of barrel of laughs in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.