Saturday, 30 May 2009

Going like the clappers

When I wrote recently about my brother's pi blanket, I used, somewhat mystifyingly, the phrase 'it grows like the clappers.' I used it to mean that the blanket knits up really, really fast.

This was mystifying because it's not actually a phrase I use in speech, and worse still, it was a bungled version of the actual saying which is 'to go like the clappers', not to grow. So let's just put it down to one of those funny slips and get on with exploring the origins of the saying. I'm doing this because enough of a our American friends raised virtual eyebrows over the appearance of said phrase and it got me to thinking.

Here is a funny aside. I have a very clear memory of the first time I read the phrase and this should demonstrate how bizarre my pop culture memory can be. In the mid-80s, I was reading a teeny-bopper magazine, most likely Smash Hits, and the phrase appeared in an interview with the two boys from Wham. Andrew Ridgley, the other member of the band, the one of dubious talent, explained that he had bought a car for his mother with his pop music earnings. He said that the car he bought 'goes like the clappers' and for some reason, that has always stuck.

I wonder if I am one of the few people on the planet who, having never met Wham's other guy, has something he said etched forever on my memory?

So when I read in my research that 'to go like the clappers' is an English phrase, not widely used outside the UK and considered archaic even there, it struck me as funny that a young guy in the 80s was the last time I could remember stumbling across it.

The best article I found on the saying is here. It makes good reading and covers not only the strongest theory on its origins but also a range of more amusing theories including a reference to rabbits and that thing we all know rabbits do well, although whether they do it fast I don't know. Can't say I've ever watched a couple of rabbits going at it, like the clappers or otherwise!

The most likely origin, the one that gets the most coverage on the various websites devoted to this subject, refers to the ringing of bells. It was most likely coined by RAF pilots in World War II.

From here:

What 'the clappers' refers to isn't entirely clear, although by far the most likely derivation is as a reference to the clappers of bells. An early form of the phrase was 'go like the clappers of hell' and, given that bells have clappers, it may be that it may that the rhyme of hell and bell is significant. RAF pilots were often from English public schools where the ringing of handbells to mark the time was common. Bells were rung more vigorously as the time remaining to get to class/chapel etc. was about to run out. The image of schoolboys dashing to class while handbells were being energetically rung matches the meaning of the phrase very well.

As funny as it would be to think that the saying has reference to rabbits and procreation, I think this one sounds more plausible.

I must ask my mum if she remembers using it. She is, after all, English, and I'm sure that phrases from her childhood and family are a part of the way I and my siblings speak now.

So I hope that's cleared it up for the Americans who were wondering. No, it's got nothing to do with having the clap! Now there's a saying I might go and read up on. What a strange one.