Monday, October 26, 2015


No, this isn't another word that came to me via the political realm. I was thinking about the word 'clapboard' and then I started wondering about the word 'claptrap'. It's a simple as that. And I'm glad I did, because claptrap proves to be a delightful word. Well, you already know it sounds delightful. Like other words that rhyme within themselves, they please us for some reason: hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo, roly-poly. But I mean that it also has delightful beginnings.

Claptrap means 'nonsense' but maybe more like 'nonsense!' said in an emphatic way. It has a lot of equivalents--'rubbish', 'drivel', 'poppycock',' humbug'. We have way more words than we actually need for this meaning, actually. But I suspect that this won't stop us from coining more.

I fully expected to find that claptrap was derived from, say, the High German klappentrappen  meaning a load of garbage or some such thing, but in fact claptrap is all English. It comes from the theatre world. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it appeared in print in around 1730 and was a stage term. It was originally a trick meant to 'catch' applause. A trap for claps, in other words. Pretty cool. I would have liked to find some example of what this kind of trick was, but haven't so far. I am not sure if the trick would have been of a verbal or a physical nature, or both. I'm kind of thinking it might be something like what we'd mean now by a 'star turn' or a 'show stopper', but I can't be sure.

                                                                                       Sam Levin

Apparently by 1819, the term was in common enough usage that it's meaning had extended to any sort of  showy language.World Wide Words  says that it was speech appealing to the lowest common denominator, full of platitudes and mawkish sentimentality. From there, as that website and others say, it was a short step to meaning 'nonsense'.

World Wide Words also clears up a misconception that seems to be floating in the ether. Many years later, a device was created to simulate clapping, much like our laugh track, which was also called a claptrap. But its invention comes 150 after the original usage.

I'd like to have an image of that device for you, but web images are dominated by a primitive looking robotlike character called Claptrap from the videogame Borderlands. According to their Wiki,

"Claptrap is a CL4P-TP general purpose robot manufactured by Hyperion. It has been programmed with an overenthusiastic personality, and brags frequently, yet also expresses severe loneliness and cowardice."

Here's an image of Claptrap, as rendered by fan J.P. Simpson:

More interesting to me personally is that there was apparently a stage play by Ken Friedman called "Claptrap", which opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. It wasn't well received. But it did inadvertently give Nathan Lane his big break. According to the L.A. Times, Lane was in the lobby after  yet another frustrating performance in what the Times termed "this dying farce", 

A man passing through the lobby paused, disturbed by Lane's forlorn face. "Hi," he said, extending a hand, "I'm Terrence McNally. You seem a little down, but you're very good in 'Claptrap,' and you shouldn't worry. Your career won't suffer as long as the work is good." 

Not only did McNally give Lane encouragement at a much needed moment, but he went on to cast him in 'Lisbon Traviata' a few years, which sent his career soaring. 

Sometimes a little claptrap is all you need. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2015



On the first of the Democratic Presidential debates last night, Bernie Sanders referred to Syria as a quagmire within a quagmire. For Americans of a certain age, 'quagmire' evokes the U.S. war in Vietnam so many years ago. A quagmire in this case means a military involvement that there is no easy way of extricating your troops from.

My question, though, is, what was a quagmire originally?


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the first instance of 'quagmire' in print was in 1570. "Quag", now obsolete, meant bog or marsh, from Middle English quabbe, which in theory goes back to Old English *cwabbe, meaning to shake or tremble (the Online Etymology Dictionary adding "like something soft and flabby"). And "mire" meant, well, pretty much the same thing, only from Scandinavian roots, like Old Norse myrr. So not just a bog but a double bog--a sort of "quagmire within a quagmire" situation, really.


As a word which literally meant, shaky ground, it's not surprising that  originally there wasn't just one spelling. There were quamyre and quabmire and quadmire--even quakemire. The metaphoric use of the word of the word meaning "in an inescapable bad situation" was with us as early as 1766, but fell out of common usage for a lot of the nineteenth century.

In the way words sometimes do, though, it came into fashion again because of a specific military meaning it had in the sixties, after the publication of a popular book by David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, which specifically addressed the situation of military involvement the U.S. faced in Vietnam.

But it turns out that an earlier intelligent observer saw America's penchant for getting into quagmires long before Halberstam did. If only he'd come up with a solution for that then:

"You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don't think that it is wise or a necessary development. As to China, I quite approve of our Government's action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours. There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."

    Mark Twain, Returning Home, New York World [London, 10/6/1900]

Cited at

(Photo by Terry Ballard taken of portrait circa 1905, owned by the Mark Twain library in Redding, Connecticut.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Night Watchman"

I've been away. Regular service to resume shortly. In the meantime, why don't you take a look at my friend A. M. Thurmond's short story, voted as most popular over at the M.O. this round? Now you can read it in its entirety right HERE.

cover art by Tobie Ancipink

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Flash Jab!

Apologies to those who only read this blog to find out what else I don't know, but another story of mine is up today, this time over at Jack Bates' Flash Jab Fiction. Jack was a fellow plotter in Untreed Reads Grimm Tales with me a few years ago, and so obviously is a crime fiction writer in his own right, but periodically is gracious enough to issue a challenge over on his blog. I do like challenges with prompts, and I particularly like his photo challenges as they are more open ended than some.

Another fun thing is that this time there are two respondents and we are both from Santa Cruz! What are the odds? I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting Morgan Boyd, but I do think I know which roller coaster gave him the idea for the background sound in his opening paragraph, as it was a background sound in my own life for several years.

Without further ado, check out his story "Enology (The Study of Wine)" and mine, "Black and White and Red All Over" at Flash Jab Fiction.