the theatrical origin of ‘claptrap’


NPG D42721; Thomas Cobham as Marmion by John Rogers, publisher by George Vertue, after Thomas Charles Wageman

Thomas Cobham as Marmion
image: Wikimedia Commons





claptrap: absurd or nonsensical talk or ideas




The word dates back to the first half of the 18th century and originally meant a use of language designed to capture (i.e. trap) a theatrical audience’s applause (i.e. clapping). The following definition is from Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a more Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than any Extant (London, 1730), by George Gordon, Philip Miller and Nathan Bailey:

A Clap Trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them go off with; as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play.

In The musical tour of Mr. Dibdin: in which—previous to his embarkation for India—he finished his career as a public character (Sheffield, 1788), the British actor, composer and writer Charles Dibdin (1745-1814), criticising the dialogue of The School for Scandal (1777), by the Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), wrote of

the tinsel scattered up and down by way of sentiments, which, by the theatrical people, are known by the name of clap traps.

The Theatrical Observer (Dublin) of 23rd January 1821 wrote, about the British actor Thomas Cobham (1786-1842):

This actor has some merit and great peculiarities; he makes points with a force, in our opinion, which destroys the very effect he intends to produce, and when approaching a clap-trap, gives such note of preparation, that they must indeed be barren spectators who do not perceive that there is “something coming”.

In Don Juan (London, 1819), the English poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) used claptrap in the sense of cheap showy sentiment:

I’ll tell you who they were, this female pair,
Lest they should seem princesses in disguise;
Besides, I hate all mystery, and that air
Of clap-trap, which your recent poets prize;
And so, in short, the girls they really were
They shall appear before your curious eyes,
Mistress and maid; the first was only daughter
Of an old man, who lived upon the water.

In a letter to his father in 1915, the English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) used the word in its current sense when he made a sharp comment on the latest aristocratic romance written by his aunt, Mary Ward (1851-1920):

I see the inevitable earls daughters, with the usual appendages, butlers and footmen and heavy dinners, are coming into Aunt M’s book again. Why can’t she resolutely keep them out? How much better this book wd. have been had she made it a study of don-life in the 80’s—which she wd. be particularly competent to deal with—instead of the usual politico-Debrett clap-trap.

By the mid-19th century, the word had also come to denote a mechanical contrivance for making a clapping noise to express applause, etc. In A New Universal Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, embracing all the terms used in Art, Science and Literature (1847), the Scottish lexicographer John Craig (1796-1880) thus defined clap-trap:

A term applied to quackish or exaggerated representations of anything; a kind of clapper for making a noise in theatres.


Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:
bums on seats
to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
Mrs Grundy
Paul Pry
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
old chestnut
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder

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