Q From David Sutton: On an Open Country program on Radio 4 I heard an interesting explanation of the phrase to go like the clappers, to move very fast. Clappers in this context were stock rabbits, kept for breeding and so likely to be exceptionally fast. It is not my normal practice to doubt anything that I hear on the BBC, but I had always assumed that the clappers in question were those used to ring bells, so could you silence my unworthy suspicion by confirming the rabbit etymology?
A I’d like to, but serried ranks of lexicographers behind me are silently shaking their collective heads in dismissal of the idea.
Though rabbits can move really fast when they want to, why rabbits kept for breeding should be exceptionally fast is hard to understand. But a connection between rabbits and clapper does exist, which may well have led to people becoming confused. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the word was used for a rabbit-burrow or a place where tame rabbits were kept. It’s from the same Old French source as the modern French clapier, a rabbit hutch. An early example is in Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues of 1611. He says clapier is French for a “clapper of conies” (coney being the usual word at the time for an adult rabbit), “a heap of stones &c., whereinto they retire themselves; or (as our clapper), a court walled about, and full of nests or boards, or stones, for tame conies.”
A story often mentioned online refers to an ancient Shrove Tuesday custom in parts of England and Wales. Mostly people repeat the tale told in Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd by Elias Owen, published in 1886: “Most people turned out to beg, or Hel Ynyd, on Shrove Tuesday. They received from the farmers fine flour, milk, lard etc. Eggs were clapped for; boys went about with two stones as clappers, and when opposite a farm house they clapped away with all their might and received for their pains a gift of eggs.”
The crucial thing that these explanations miss is the dating. It’s clear from the evidence that the expression is British military slang of World War Two, or perhaps a year or two earlier. The first example I can find is in an article in a Canadian newspaper, the Lethbridge Herald, dated September 1942, listing current RAF slang: “A pilot chased by the enemy ‘goes like the clappers’ or full out.”
The usual explanation in dictionaries is that the clapper is one of the devices given that name, in particular the clapper of a bell. A group of bellringers in a church tower ringing changes do make the clappers collectively move fast, and would explain the use of the plural in the expression.
However, though not by any means impossible, it seems unlikely that service personnel would create a slang term from church bell ringing. The clue lies in extended forms of the expression, such as going like the clappers of hell and going like the clappers on the bells of hell. These could have been fanciful elaborations, but seem more likely to be the longer original forms that were shortened to our elliptical going like the clappers. The expression also ties in with the mild oath hell’s bells, which appeared in the US in the 1840s and later became widely known in the English-speaking world, no doubt because of its rhyme. (The version hell’s bells and buckets of blood, however, is definitely an elaborated form that came along later.) Another influence may have been the First World War soldiers’ song “The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, / For you but not for me’, which was introduced to a new generation through being used in The Hostage by Brendan Behan in 1958 and in the musical and film Oh, What a Lovely War in the 1960s.
Though it cannot be proved, the related historical usages strongly suggest the true origin lies in a reference to the bells of hell.
For the sake of completeness, perhaps I should mention a further possibility. Another form, recorded by Eric Partridge, was like the clappers of fuck. This is intriguing, as clappers as a slang term for the testicles was known in the British military in the 1930s, so called because of their castanet tendency if they were unrestrained during exercise. Might going like the clappers be a reference to sexual activity? It’s not mentioned in the reference books, and the evidence from the popular song and the phrase hell’s bells is more persuasive. But it’s an intriguing alternative to the usual stories. And it does take us back to those rabbits.