Laughing uproariously or uncontrollably.
Example: “He was so funny – he had me in stitches all evening.”
To be in stitches is to laugh so hard that it hurts — hurts like being pricked with a needle.
The first written record of the expression occurs in William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, circa 1601. After preparing 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 was already well-known. It is one of many expressions in Shakespeare’s work that holds the same meaning in the present day.
Despite Shakespeare, the phrase didn’t become established in the language until the 20th century. The earliest non-Shakesperian record is apparently the following entry in The Lowell Sun in July 1914:
“There’s a new face among the members in Ben Loring, a natural-born comedian, who seems to have no difficulty whatever in keeping his audience in stitches of laughter and glee.”
“Stitches” refers to a common physical ailment, a side stitch, which can occur during intense physical exertion. However, the phrase is an example of hyperbole, the deliberate use of exaggeration for dramatic or comic effect.
The modern words “stitch” and “stick” come from the Old English root word “stice,” meaning to stab or puncture. The side stitch was so named because the sensation is a stabbing pain. The cause of side stitches is believed to be associated with stress to the diaphragm, the abdominal muscle that controls lung activity.
As laughter involves the lungs and diaphragm, it is certainly possible to get side stitches from prolonged laughter. 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.
Laughing until you’re in stitches may hurt, but it’s still preferable to darning socks.