The term "laughing stock" refers to a person, thing or situation that is ridiculed. This term, which also might be written as "laughingstock" or "laughing-stock," can refer to a single person, a group of people or an intangible idea or element. Although the exact origin of this term is unknown, it is believed to have been derived from the stocks in which petty criminals were placed to be subjected to public ridicule.
This phrase was first seen in literature during the 16th century. John Frith and Sir Philip Sidney both included a variation of "laughing stock" in different works written in 1533. The phrase might have been commonly used even before this.
During the time this phrase was first seen in print, one of the preferred methods of punishment for petty crime was putting individuals in stocks. Stocks were wooden devices that would hold a person immobile for prolonged periods of time, usually by securing the person's head and hands in the holes cut between two boards that were mounted on a pole or frame. The physical aspect of being held in stocks caused pain, and they were commonly placed in public areas so passersby could ridicule and mock those who were being punished. It was common for people who were in stocks to be hit with mud, rotten foods and even animal excrement that was thrown by the passersby. This could have led to the use of "laughing stock" in old English sayings.
Another theory behind the phrase is a more literal interpretation. The word "stock" can mean a stump or block of wood that provides support. A stock also can be the butt end of a structure or tool, such as a gun. When a person or an action becomes the base or most substantial part of a joke it can be said they are the butt of the joke, or the "laughing stock."
The term is often used loosely in modern times. If an idea can be laughed at, the idea can be the "laughing stock." This term is seen in print media and heard on radio and television, and it has found a way in to most dictionaries and other reference books that list common expressions.
Although the term might be derived from the public humiliation of actual criminals, the act of putting people in stocks is sometimes done in modern times for fun and public benefit. For example, at some fundraising events or carnivals, a volunteer or willing worker might be placed in stocks, and other people can pay for the privilege of tossing water balloons, cream pies or other soft, wet items at the face of the person in the stocks. This is done to raise money and draw laughter, making the person in the stocks a true "laughing stock."