Q From Bernie Baxter: Do you have any idea where the word claptrap comes from? I associate it with talking rubbish but I’ve no idea what a clap is — other than the obvious infectious disease — and why you would build a trap for one.
A It’s certainly not that sort of clap.
Your claptrap is indeed a trap to catch a clap, but it’s the sort of clap you make by putting your hands together in appreciation. Its first appearance in print is in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1721 and his definition pretty much tells the whole story: “A Clap Trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”
Such rhetorical devices or actorly flourishes were thought unworthy of the serious dramatist or thespian. A writer in the The New-England Magazine in 1835, fulminating against the star system that was contributing to the decline of the modern drama, complained that in order to feed the performance of the lead actor, “The piece must abound in clap-traps”. Nor was the technique confined to the theatre itself: an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1855 about a new play said that “All the clap-traps of the press were employed to draw an audience to the first representation.” And in 1867, back across the Atlantic in London, Thomas Wright wrote in Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes that: “The Waggoner’s entertainment, of course, embraced the usual unauthenticated statistics, stock anecdotes, and pieces of clap-trap oratory of the professional teetotal lecturers.”
The word developed from a figurative theatrical device to encourage applause into a more general term for showy or insincere platitudes or mawkish sentimentality directed at the lowest common denominator of one’s audience. From there it was only a short step to the sense of talking nonsense or rubbish, though the older ideas are often still present.
Incidentally, in the middle of the nineteenth century, 150 years after the word had first been recorded, some unsung backstage hero invented a mechanical device, a sort of clapper, that made a noise like that of applause (perhaps to encourage the real thing, though we are not told). Presumably it was similar to a football rattle. This also was called a claptrap. It has led some people into the mistake of suggesting that this device was the source of the word.