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Consulting a dictionary on the meaning of 貽 makes the meaning of the expression rather clear. I would say “give (others cause for) great laughter”, “become laughingstock”. Yet I have trouble understanding 方。 The only function I can guess is that of a classifier. But there are two problems.

Firstly, it occurs in somewhat literary Chinese, which, I am given to understand, does not use classifiers.

清·李汝珍《鏡花緣》第17回:“才女才說學士大夫論及反切尚切瞠目無語,何況我們不過略知皮毛,豈敢亂談,貽笑大方!

On the other hand the use of 我 perhaps shows it is not really classical, but a hybrid literary Chinese?

A lesser problem is that none of my Pleco dictionaries (PLC, TL, CC, UNI) list 方 as a classifier for 笑。 Google search of 一方笑 doesn’t remotely support it as a classifier.

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    according to bkrs, 大方 1) 有名的大家。 expert scholar 如:「他如此的谬解文意,真是贻笑大方。」 花月痕.第十回:「款书『荷生题赠采秋女史』八字,写毕,说道:『贻笑大方!』」 贻笑大方 see 贻笑方家 [ give an expert cause for laughter; incur the ridicule of those who know ] 大方 has frequency #6686 (also is in IME) many other meanings – user6065 Dec 21 '17 at 19:41
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    @ludi, classifier is used, very often, in literary chinese. these classifiers would replace the nouns. and, "我" is used in literary chinese, though not common. need examples of these two situations? – 水巷孑蠻 Dec 21 '17 at 19:44
  • @水巷孑蠻 Yes, please! Should I post specific questions for these? – Ludi Dec 21 '17 at 21:18
  • sure, that would make searching easier, in later times :) – 水巷孑蠻 Dec 22 '17 at 4:45
  • @user6065 What is IME? – Ludi Dec 22 '17 at 11:24
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the 國語辭典 listed: 貽笑大方 is derived from 見笑大方

http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?o=dcbdic&searchid=Z00000093396

then 見笑大方 is derived from 莊子﹒秋水

http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/floods-of-autumn/zh

吾長見笑於大方之家

it's a comment made by 河伯 (uncle river), when he reached the sea.

again, the 國語辭典 explained "大方之家" as "懂得大道理的人" (~ experts)

http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?o=dcbdic&searchid=Z00000040658

and "大方" as "有名的大家"

http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?o=dcbdic&searchid=Z00000040654

"方" is not a classifier in this usage. as i "google", some remarks of "方" in literatures of yore were "道" (tao, the proper way).

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  • 方 can be the shortened form of the classifier 平方 (square) or 立方(cubic). As in "面積一萬(平)方米" (ten thousand square meter area) or "體積一百萬(立)方米" (one million cubic meter volume ) – Tang Ho Dec 21 '17 at 19:51
  • well, if one treat 方 as area, or volume, the two entries in 國語辭典 cannot be explained (大方之家 & 大方). :) – 水巷孑蠻 Dec 21 '17 at 20:00
  • It can be a classifier, but it isn't one in 貽笑大方 – Tang Ho Dec 21 '17 at 20:02
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Edit: 水巷孑蠻's answer seem legit, but the modern usage of 貽笑大方 is basically the same as my interpretation below. Since the term 大方家 itself had became archaic, common folks no longer associate 大方 with 'famous experts'. The meaning of 貽笑大方 changed from the original to "become laughingstock in famous experts' mind" to the more common "become laughingstock in everyone's mind"

http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/characters/425/

[3] [n] region; area; place

In 貽笑大方, 大 means 'great/vast' ; 方 means 'region/ area'

貽笑大方 means 'give laughter (become laughingstock) to vast area'. Meaning it is so laughable that people everywhere are laughing at it.

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