“The Clap:” Gonorrhea’s Other Name

Avoid the Clap, Jimmy Dugan” – A League of their Own (Motion Picture)


With all due respect to one of my favorite fictional baseball managers, the clap is not a laughing matter. The clap is not a subset of gonorrhea. It is gonorrhea. “The clap” is just a nickname.


How did gonorrhea become known as the clap? There are competing theories. We are going to discuss some of the more contemporary ideas floating around various academic immunology departments. Before we get into the theory, though, it is a good idea to establish a basic foundation of what gonorrhea is, what it can do, and how it gets transmitted.


Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterium, referred to as Neisseria gonorrhoeae. This bacteria is highly infectious and easily transmitted between sexually active partners. Gonorrhea can be obtained from vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse. In some documented cases, gonorrhea was transmitted from person to person after nothing more than skin to skin contact (with no sexual activity). As a result, gonorrhea has become an ever-growing public health concern among young adults being the largest group infected with the disease. When symptoms are present, the more common ones include lower abdominal pain, painful urination (especially in women), inflammation and a thick, mucus-like discharge. The good news is that gonorrhea can be treated and eliminated with a simple course of antibiotics.


So, now that we have a general understanding of what the bacteria is, how its transmitted and what it can do, we can now talk about what led to gonorrhea having “the clap” as a nickname.   The first accepted theory is that “clap” is derived from the old French term “clapier,” which is a reference to a rabbit’s nest. What is the link? It might be a bit tenuous, but rabbits are considered to be excessively sexual. There is another connotation of “clapier,” however–it was a reference to a brothel. Brothels are hotbeds of STDs. This was a lot more true in the past, before safe sexual practices were established. So, anyway, the disease was referred to as “clapier bubo.” A bubo is an inflamed lymph node in the groin area.


The second theory about how gonorrhea became known as “the clap” centers around a theorized treatment of the disease.  Medical procedures were not always as modern and thoroughly-researched as they are nowadays. There was a time when treating gonorrhea involved a fairly barbaric procedure. The physician would clap firmly on both sides of the penis to simultaneously try to flush pus and mucus out of the urethra. Sometimes, doctors would smash both sides of an infected man’s penis with two books. This procedure has fallen out of favor over the years, much to the relief of any man that has ever been infected with gonorrhea.


The third theory regarding how gonorrhea got nicknamed “the clap” can be attributed to the old English word “clappan,” meaning to beat or throb. The origin of this theory is likely about some common symptoms of gonorrhea. The symptom in question is a constant throbbing sensation in an infected man’s penis. A notable problem with this theory is that clappan seems to have been derived after the French introduced the term clapier. The idea still has a lone wolf supporter or two, but, for the most part, it is no longer considered credible.


Another theory about the name “the clap’ involves the United States military. During times of war, especially when young fighting men were overseas, gonorrhea spread through army barracks like wildfire.  In order to maintain confidentiality, and most likely for strategic reasons, the army utilized a code word for the disease, referring to it as “the collapse.” Some people think it is possible that “the collapse” mutated into “the clap” after many repetitions amount infantrymen.


However gonorrhea got its name is largely irrelevant. What matters is the nature of the disease and why men and women of all ages and sexual orientations should be tested regularly–especially if they are engaging in high-risk behavior. Gonorrhea is a nasty, smelly, unhygienic disease that can be treated with antibiotics. The human body does not have a natural immunity to gonorrhea, therefore vigilant testing, screening and education are required to maintain your sexual health.


Although the theories surrounding the origin of the nickname “the clap” are numerous and sometimes apocryphal, the true nature of the disease cannot be understated. Untreated gonorrhea can have serious consequences. Women can experience painful pregnancies and men can jeopardize their fertility and/or be forced to live with debilitating arthritis. Be smart. Practice safe sex and get yourself tested regularly.

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