The informal phrase like the clappers means very fast, or very hard.
Here, clapper is the noun denoting the moving metal piece within a bell, which strikes it and produces the sound.
This intensive image was used earlier to characterise volubleness. For example, The Norfolk News (Norwich, Norfolk, England) of Saturday 25th May 1861 reported that, during a trial:
For full twenty minutes, the tongues of the plaintiff and defendant went like the clappers of a couple of bells.
Likewise, and also in an account of a court case, The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal (Diss, Norfolk, England) of Friday 11th August 1876 noted:
The wives of the respective parties attended to settle affairs, and a war of words ensued between them, to which His Honour listened with much patience, jocularly remarking that their tongues went like the clappers of a bell.
There have been variants; the following, for example, is from an article published in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette (Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland) of Wednesday 29th April 1891:
Hundreds of tongues go like bleachfield* clappers.
(* A bleachfield was a field onto which cloth was spread in order to be whitened by the action of the sunlight.)
Another variant appeared, for example, in The Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser (Naas, County Kildare, Ireland) of Saturday 10th April 1897; this newspaper reported that, during a meeting of the Naas Union, one Mr Driver kept interrupting the chairman:
The Chairman continued reading the document, Mr Driver’s tongue going like the clappers of a windmill.
The phrase like the clappers originated in the slang of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.
The earliest instance that I have found is from The Slanguage of the R.A.F., published in the Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool, County Durham, England) of Friday 14th August 1942:
Three ropey types, all sprogs, pranged a cheeseye kite on bumps and circuits. One bought it; the other two went for a Burton. The station-master took a dim view and tore them off a strip. They’d taken a shagbat Wofficer, who was browned off, along, and the Queen Bee was hopping mad.
This may sound like double Dutch or a section from a New York cab-driver’s vocabulary, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the King’s English, 1942 version, as spoken—sometimes—by the Royal Air Force.
A translation for those who don’t understand such modern English would read:—
“Three unpopular individuals, all brand new pilot officers, crashed a worn-out aircraft while making practice circuits and landings. One was killed; the other two were severely reprimanded. The station commander disapproved and roundly rated them. They had taken along a somewhat plain W.A.A.F. officer, who was bored, and the W.A.A.F. Commandant was very angry.”
Like all Services in all countries, the R.A.F. has developed a language, all its own. Many of the terms have been adopted now into common usage, such as “Browned off” for bored, and “Put up a black” for doing something wrong. Some expressions have been borrowed from the United States, including “Flinging a woo,” which means to have a date with a girl, and “Roughneck” which, in the R.A.F., does not mean a tough guy but an unlikeable person.
Coastal Command have a language which is semi-nautical. They have “Rover patrols,” and go on “strikes” and “sweeps”; have a “strike-boat” (flying-boat) ready. They come down “in the drink” when they force-land in the water; “hit the deck” when they crash-land on sea or water.
“Gen” means the real, inside information on anything and, similarly, “duff gen” means wrong information on anything. A “flap” is a sudden operation. To be in a flap or in a flat spin means to be busy on a job, too busy to do anything else.
The “Chief Plumber” is, of course, the chief engineer; the “Quack” is the doctor; the “Second Dickey” is the second pilot, and a stickeyback is a R.A.F. photographer. There are three degrees of boredom—brassed off, browned off, and cheesed off. The cheesed is the strongest.
Pilots who go “dicing” or on a “shaky-do” are attacking a difficult and dangerous target; if it’s an easy target it’s a “piece of cake.” After they drop their bombs they sometimes “stooge around to take a beaker,” meaning to hang around to have a look.
If a pilot is chased by the enemy he goes “like the clappers,” or full out. A new pilot is “doying” or coming in to land for the first time; when he succeeds he may say “I’ve got it wrapped”; in other words he has it “all buttoned up,” or well understood.
To “carry the can” is to “hold the baby” or to be the “scapegoat type,” while pilots suffering from the morning-after feeling are “newted.”
“Gedawng” is a word that covers all explosive noises, from cannon-firing and bomb explosions to crashing aircraft or the scream of the open throttles.
“He hit the deck and . . . gedawng;” “the Messerschmitt came up behind and . . . gedawng.”
‘A Pilot’ applied the phrase to the wind in a letter titled Biscay Boils Up, published in The Sunday Post (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Sunday 27th September 1942:
Picture me in my Liberator II. stooging about the Bay of Biscay-O at around 230 m.p.h., sometimes with ten-tenths cloud, sheeting rain, and wind going like the clappers.
I’m on the hunt for U-boats.
The earliest non-military use of the phrase that I have found is from the column Under the Counter, by the English journalist Noel Bernard Whitcomb (1918-93), in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 7th October 1950; the author is coming out of the Lascaux Cave, in the department of Dordogne, in southwestern France:
Outside in the broiling sunshine (I beg your pardon—did you say something?) I climb back into the French car I am using.
The driver bares about 50,000 francs worth of gold teeth in a broad grin, and we hurtle down the road like the clappers—as if the cavemen were after us.
The phrase was used in the advertisement for one of the automobiles sold by Camden Motors, “the used car specialists”, published in The Banbury Advertiser (Banbury, Oxfordshire, England) of Wednesday 28th November 1951—this company used similar colourful phrases in other advertisements, such as “goes like a bomb” and “goes like 17 scalded cats”:
1934 RILEY 12 h.p. “Mentone” Saloon, remote control gears, 17 inch steering wheel, special gauges and all the trimmings, goes like the “clappers,” £195.