What Does It Mean to Be "in Stitches"?

Alan Rankin

To be “in stitches” means to laugh uproariously or uncontrollably. The saying has been used in English for hundreds of years and even appears in a Shakespeare play. It refers to a common physical ailment, a side stitch, which occurs during periods of high physical exertion. It is possible to experience a side stitch from laughter, leading to expressions such as “in stitches from laughing so hard.” Most people described this way are not actually experiencing side stitches from laughter; this is an example of creative exaggeration, or hyperbole.

"In stitches" refers to laughing uproariously.
"In stitches" refers to laughing uproariously.

The word “stitch” comes from the Old English root word “stice,” meaning to stab or puncture. "Stice” provides the modern words “stick” and “stitch,” which can both mean to puncture something with a sharp object. The side stitch was so named because the sensation is a stabbing pain. The cause of side stitches is a matter of medical conjecture. It is generally believed to be associated with stress to the diaphragm, the abdominal muscle that controls lung activity.

William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" features the line, "If you will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me."
William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" features the line, "If you will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me."

As laughter involves the lungs and the diaphragm, it is possible to get side stitches from prolonged laughter. Laughter is often a social phenomenon; people tend to laugh more when other people are laughing or if they have been laughing previously. Thus, a particularly funny story or performance can cause people to laugh so much that they actually experience physical discomfort, such as shortness of breath or side stitches. Originally, this was expressed with sayings like “throw him into stitches.” Eventually it was shortened to “in stitches,” the side stitch being a common enough experience that no explanation was necessary.

It is actually possible to get side stitches from prolonged laughter.
It is actually possible to get side stitches from prolonged laughter.

The first recorded use of the expression “in stitches” occurs in William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, written around 1601. After executing a practical joke, the character Maria tells her co-conspirators, “If you will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me.” Shakespeare’s casual usage suggests the phrase had already been in conversational use for some time. The actual date it was first used is unknown. It is one of many expressions used by Shakespeare that holds the same meaning in the present day.

Writers and critics will often say that a comedic performance or movie kept the audience in stitches. Of course, this does not mean that audience members were literally experiencing physical discomfort. This use of the phrase, probably the most common modern usage of “in stitches,” is an example of hyperbole. Hyperbole is the deliberate use of exaggeration for dramatic or comic effect.

Intense laughter often results in shortness of breath.
Intense laughter often results in shortness of breath.

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Discussion Comments


@Moldova- I was often in stitches watching Seinfeld, too. I also love shows that are serious with a funny element. Some of my favorites from recent years are Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me, all of which were created by Brian Fuller. He takes really serious themes and ideas, but throws in everyday things that are hilarious, like a girl who dies, is brought back to life as a grim reaper, and then has to live out her afterlife working at a temp agency.


I just watched the movie "It's Complicated" and was expecting it to be a bit serious as it has an element to divorce and affairs to it.

But the movie really plays up the comic genius of Steve Martin and it had both me *and* my husband in stitches! So I recommend this movie for an abdominal workout for both men and women.

I hadn't used the term "in stitches" in forever and now I know why - it is connected with laughing uncontrollably. It would be wrong to say that you are "in stitches" if you just giggled a little. Sadly I had not laughed that much in a while, so long in fact my stomach kind of hurt after I finished watching the movie!

I love that the term came from Shakespeare as I felt his Taming of the Shrew was comedic brilliance!


@Bhutan - I love that movie too. I always find that I am in stitches when I go to a comedy show and the comedian is talking about something that I can relate to. These types of jokes really make me laugh because I understand the humor in them.

I think that is why shows like Seinfeld were so popular because the characters all experienced inconveniences and things that happen to all of us.

I think that we were able to relate to the humor which was why the show was so successful.


I have to say that the one movie that always keeps me in stitches is “The Birdcage” with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. I cannot stop laughing when I watch that movie. I think that the jokes and the timing of these jokes are spot on.

It is one of the few movies that I could watch repeatedly and still laugh at the same lines. That really tells you how talented the actors and writers are because comedy is not easy.

It is hard to be funny without even trying. One my favorite parts of the movie is when Calista Flockhart is telling her parents about her finance family and says that they live in South Beach and the mother says, “Isn’t that like Palm Beach?” The daughter continues and says, “Yes it is it is near the Bush’s because South Beach is close to Fisher Island which is where Jeb Bush lived."

South Beach is nothing like Palm Beach which is why this line is so funny.

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