meaning and origin of the phrase ‘like the clappers’



The British-English phrase like the clappers means very fast or very hard.

This phrase originated in the slang of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. These are the earliest occurrences of like the clappers that I have found:

1-: From The Slanguage of the R.A.F., published in the Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool, County Durham, England) of Friday 14th August 1942:

If a pilot is chased by the enemy he goes “like the clappers,” or full out.

2-: From Biscay Boils Up, by ‘a pilot’, 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 Bay has become U-boat H.-Q.-in-Chief for attacks on our Atlantic shipping.

The earliest use of like the clappers in a non-military context that I have found is from the column Under the Counter, by Noel Whitcomb (1918-1993), published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 7th October 1950—the author gives an account of his trip to Lascaux, the site of a cave in the Dordogne, 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 cave men 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 theclappers,” £195.




In this phrase, the noun clapper probably denotes:
– either the tongue of a bell, which strikes it on the inside and causes it to sound,
– or a device in a mill for striking or shaking the hopper so as to make the grain move down to the millstones.

In fact, there existed two earlier phrases, which denoted extreme volubility:
somebody’s tongue goes like the clapper of a bell, and variants;
somebody’s tongue goes like the clapper of a mill, and variants.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of somebody’s tongue goes like the clapper of a bell is from Exchange no Robbery, a poem published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal. Vol. VII. Original Papers (London: Printed for Henry Colburn and Co., 1823):

That d—d tongue of your’s [sic], that seem’d so witty,
Goes like the clapper of a bell.
Is there no stopping it,
Except by cropping it?

The second-earliest occurrence of somebody’s tongue goes like the clapper of a bell is from The North Devon Journal and General Advertiser (Barnstaple, Devon, England) of Friday 22nd October 1824:

The Cheltenham Crier.

Old Stentor, the Crier, had pass’d with his wife,
Full thirty long years of contention and strife;
Her mouth was a bell, and her Billingsgate tongue
In his ears, like a clapper, incessantly rung.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of somebody’s tongue goes like the clapper of a mill is from the account of a police-court case, published in The Courier (London, England) of Wednesday 27th September 1826:

Mr. James Milton […] was brought before John Hardwick, Esq., on a warrant, charging him with belabouring the sides and back of his helpmate, Mrs. Sarah Milton.
Mr. Milton—[…] I boxed her ears; I am sorry I did so, for there never was a better wife; but she is, unfortunately, subject to Lunar fits; and whenever she is under their influence, her tongue, which is freely hung, goes like the clapper of a mill.

A variant of the phrase occurs in the account of a police-court case, published in The Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier (Cork, County Cork, Ireland) of Tuesday 1st October 1844:

Complainant—[…] Nelly Cotter […] tould [sic] me at once that it was a brown-haired woman who stole my property, and that she had a bad tongue besides (Loud laughter). Oh, your Worship, who could I pitch upon then but Nelly Cotter, who has a tongue like the clapper of a mill, and who lets no one pass without a slash of it (Roars of laughter).

This gave rise, with reference either to the tongue of a bell or to the clapper of a mill, to the shorter form somebody’s tongue goes like a clapper—as in the following from the account of a court case, published in The Sligo Journal (Sligo, County Sligo, Ireland) of Friday 22nd July 1836:

This woman’s tongue went like a clapper, and all attempts to check her were vain.

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