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. 



  1. In the sense that both come out of the theatre yes. But the slapstick actually was a mechanical device making a slapping sound orginally, while claptrap really had nothing to do with that until a later device by the same name came into being.

  2. " We have way more words than we actually need for this meaning, actually."?


  3. And an 'Applesauce!' right back at you, Peter.

  4. I love "applesauce." And I once used "tosh!" to contradict a dubious assertion on Twitter, which leads me to wonder whether social media perform in the incidentally beneficial function of keeping such delightful expressions alive.

  5. It would be nice to think so, as in general I think they probably add more vulgarity to our lives than otherwise. I doubt, I mean, that all that many people are saying "Tosh!"

  6. i agree that "tosh!" is a part of distressingly few vocabularies, But social media let us keep it in a kind of circulation, albeit limited. Since the Internet is the most powerful vehicle of stupidity and misinformation in the history of mankind, I appreciate all the more its occasional benefits.

  7. True. We may as well use them for our own ends too, so long as they're here.

  8. "Bullshit!" must have had some rough charm when people started saying it, but it's thoroughly domesticated now. I am grateful for a supply of pungent substitutes.

  9. Maybe with all of these it's the case that a little usage goes a long way, so people feel called to come up with new ones.

  10. I loved learning all this--ah, the theatre connections!

  11. Yes, I loved the theatre lore too. I'm not really a theatre person but I am sort of a fellow traveler.