Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

From rabbits to gonorrhea: “clap” and its kin

Three years ago, I discussed the origin of several kl– formations, all of which were sound-symbolic: kl- appeared to suggest cleaving, cluttering, and the like. In this context, especially revealing is the etymology of cloth (see the posts for June 29, 2016 and August 10, 2016). The problem with such consonant groups is that there is rarely anything intrinsically symbolic in them. Why should kl- suggest clinging and clustering, rather than cloying or clobbering? Actually, it does both. In this hunt, one never knows where to stop, and researchers are often carried away by the tempting similarity of numerous words that may or may not have anything in common.

Yet this is probably how language originated. No one strove for consistency. Words were born out of chaos. Ancient people’s erratic habits keep language historians busy. To complicate matters, sound-symbolic formations are more or less universal and do not obey so-called phonetic laws (correspondences). Finally, even if we have explained the first two sounds of the word correctly, we still have to account for the rest of them. Granted, cl– in clover (one of the words I discussed) makes sense, because the juice of the plant is sticky, but what about –over? The same question should be asked about every word under discussion.

Cl- is fine, but what is -over? In clover by Robert Couse-Baker. Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Since groups like kl-, gl-, pl-, and the rest do not mean anything in and of themselves, they can be used for many purposes. We are on safer ground when it comes to sound imitation (onomatopoeia). Our vowels and consonants are not suited to reproduce coughing, hiccoughing, sneezing, giggling, roaring, barking, and the rest, but we do what we can. Evidently, kl– ad gl– have been chosen for rendering loud noises. Clap is one of such words. It goes back to Old English and has close cognates all over the Germanic-speaking area. Modern German kläffen “to yap” is almost the same word. To be sure, flap, slap, rap, tap, lap (up), and even larrup “to thrash” might have been chosen to mean “give a sharp, forcible, or resounding noise.” Crap would perform this function even better, and another final consonant would do the work equally well (compare the obviously sound-imitating clatter). But, for some reason, the Germanic complex klap– won the day and even spread all over the Romance-speaking world.

A typical clapper. Image CC0 Public Domain via Max Pixel.

It is curious to observe how far the recorded meanings may deviate from the initial sound-imitating idea. Allegedly, some people think that pigs grunt klap-klap while eating; hence the dialectal French noun clapon “pig.” Shoes go clop-clop; hence French chapin (borrowed from Spanish) “shoe” (not a common but characteristic word). Yet, as noted, one should tread lightly, rather than rush clop-clop, here, for a lot can be suggested but little can be “proved” in this area. English dialectal clapholt designates small boards of split oak, cut to make barrel staves (the modern Standard word is clapboard). In northern Devonshire, a clapper is a wooden bridge across a stream. When we deal with splitting, a loud noise is natural. Clap “to strike” is also behind claptrap, originally a “trap” devised for causing applause.

Then we find Scots clappers “rabbit warren,” explained as being “sometimes formed merely of heaps of stones thrown loosely together.” Stones, naturally, tend to fall or come in contact with one another with a lot of noise. Strange, as it may seem, rabbits bring me to clap “gonorrhea.” In 1887, the German scholar Hermann Varnhagen published an informative article on the use of the Germanic root klap in Romance. His material is excellent and in my exposition, I have of course drawn on his results, but sometimes he seems to have let his enthusiasm carry him too far. Here is one more of his examples.

A warren. Is it the progenitor of a brothel? Photo by John Schilling via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

In his opinion, rabbits’ fertility gave rise to Old French clapoir “brothel” and the venereal disease clap. Words for “brothel” are many and ingenious (see the post for January 15, 2014). Perhaps Varnhagen guessed well (compare cathouse “brothel”), but there may be a less complicated approach to the word. Clap “to strike,” like strike itself, was used in the Elizabethan days as a synonym for “copulate.” Assuming that similar usage enjoyed enough popularity in France, the name of the venereal disease would emerge as a result of sexual activity. Dictionaries trace the English word to Old French, cite the obsolete Dutch cognate, and conclude: “Of uncertain origin.” The origin looks rather obvious.

A house of sin, as depicted in the past. Brothel by Joachim Beuckelaer. Released to the public domain by the Walters Art Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, we read that soldiers and officers used to go to different brothels. At the end of the story, the hero (Lieutenant [Tenente] Fred Henry) and Catherine have one of their staccato conversations: “What are you thinking about now?”  “Nothing.” “Yes you were. Tell me.” “I was wondering whether Rinaldi had the syphilis.” “Was that all?” “Yes.” “Has he the syphilis?” ”I don’t know.” “I am glad you haven’t. Did you ever have anything like that?” “I had gonorrhea.” “I don’t want to hear about it. Was it very painful, darling?” “Very.”

A young Ernest Hemingway. Public domain, modified by Fallschirmjäger. Via Wikimedia Commons.

OF course, Hemingway could not care less for the etymology of the word, even though he knew the origin of the disease, and we needn’t trouble him any longer. Rather, we should return to my gleanings of August 29, 2018 (and don’t miss Stephen Goranson’s comments). In that post, in connection with the work jiffy, I wrote about a series of articles by the famous German philologist Wilhelm Braune and retold one section in the latest of them. Today I have to mention his early (1896) essay. I also suggested that Braune, most probably, had never seen Hensleigh Wedgwood’s works. But, strangely, he does not seem to have referred to Varnhagen’s well-known contribution either (Braune’s text is so dense that it is easy to miss something; hence my cautious tone), though his analysis runs along the same lines. In any case, both scholars examined not only kl– but also some gl-words denoting noises, and concluded that Engl. yelp is one of them. Old Engl. gielpan (pronounced as yielpan) once began with “real” g, as do all its cognates. There is nothing revolutionary in such a conclusion. Whoever has dealt with words like Engl. call (a borrowing from Scandinavian) and Hebrew kol “voice” agreed that the complex gol ~ kol denotes noise almost everywhere. In the world of onomatopoeia, the difference between kl and gl is of little importance.

Cliff, the last word to be discussed today, is the most controversial one, and the literature on it is huge. For some reason, the German analog of cliff is Klippe, and the problem of –f(f) ~ -(p)p has never been resolved. A mountain of research has not given birth even to the smallest viable mouse. At cliff and Klippe, dictionaries say only “origin unknown (uncertain).” Some scholars trace both nouns to the substrate: allegedly, the ancient Germanic inhabitants of Europe borrowed this word, along with many others denoting the features of the terrain new to them, from the native speakers of the area.

Since that language is lost, there is nothing to say about it. Braune believed that the words are Germanic and designate a huge piece of broken rock (compare clapboard and clappers, above, which Braune did not cite). If Braune guessed well, the difference between final p and f is as insignificant as the difference between initial k and g in kol ~ gol. I am not ready to take sides here, but have to say two things. First, a few seemingly inscrutable etymological riddles sometimes have embarrassingly easy solutions. Second, it does no one any good to ignore existing conjectures, even if they run counter to conventional wisdom, for, as history shows, a good deal of wisdom turns out to be folly.

Featured image credit: Photo © Richard Knights (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    (Sorry to comment at an irrelevant post, but you’ve said you only see comments if they’re posted at the latest post.)

    The historical linguistPiotr Gąsiorowski has a 2014 article (in the form of seven blog posts) on a proposed etymology for PIE *kʷétwōr ‘four’.

    To summarize a fascinating path through the various IE languages to the point of caricature: the word looks like a neuter plural adjective of a mostly unrecorded root *kʷet-, which Piotr glosses as ‘pair, form into twos’. (Part of the supporting evidence for this is Russian čët, čëtka ‘even number’, četá ‘pair, union’, and čeť ‘quarter’, all with no support outside Slavic except for an isolated match in Ossetian.) ‘Four’ is in some sense a paradigm case of pairing: a pair of (natural) pairs, like animal feet and wagon wheels.

    If you do read the article, be sure to look at the comments as well: they contain many helpful clarifications.

Comments are closed.