Ever hear of a ha-ha? I don’t mean the ubiquitous tagline at the end of every sentence certain teenagers write (ha ha LOL—you know who you are). I mean the other kind.
A ha-ha is a term in garden design that describes a sunken ditch. It’s meant to take the place of an unsightly fence, and allows for an uninterrupted view of the landscape or garden or park from the manor house or castle or other grand interior, but provides a barrier to entering the property from the other direction. (Mostly for cows; it wouldn’t be much of a deterrent for a determined human intruder.)
A few years ago, I read about ha-has in a novel with that title, so I knew them as a kind of military trench. But then I read about them as features of manor houses, in Bill Bryson’s amazing book, At Home.
Ha-has have been around for centuries—according to Bryson, since the time of William the Conqueror—but they really became fashionable during the eighteenth century, when landscapers installed them on the grounds of large manor houses of England and France. On huge country estates, before lawnmowers were invented, the ha-ha allowed grazing livestock to keep the grass trimmed, but prevented them from wandering into the flower beds and eating those, too.
The term “ha-ha” (or “ah-ah” in French) is supposed to represent the element of surprise because the sudden trench was seen at the last instant, causing someone to utter a startled cry—“Ha! ha! Look! A large ditch that I almost didn’t see!” or “Ah! ah! Regardez ce fossé que je n’ai presque pas vu!”