Claptrap and balderdash
Occasionally this blog may be accused of talking claptrap, a term we use to denote rubbish or pompous, pretentious nonsense. But what is claptrap?
Thespians thrive on applause and a warm glow of appreciation emanating from their audience. Those who have been around the block a few times know how to milk their audience. To feed the self-importance of an actor a wise playwright would conclude a scene with a few words which would amuse the audience and ensure that the thespian left the stage with applause or laughter ringing in their ears. A claptrap was nothing more than a dramatic device to generate applause, as Nathan Bailey revealed in his Universal Etymological Dictionary of 1721, “a clap trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play”.
By the mid 19th century the word began to escape the close confines of the world of grease paint. Although still in a theatrical context, the Harper’s New Monthly Magazine complained in 1855 about the puffery and promotions of other journals to attract an audience for a play; “all the clap-traps of the press were employed to draw an audience to the first representation”. And in 1867 we find one of the first usages of the word to denote the sense that we now attribute to it. In Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, Thomas Wright wrote, “the Waggoners’ entertainment..embraced the usual unauthenticated statistics, stock anecdotes, and pieces of clap-trap oratory of the professional tee-total orators”. Sounds like a Brexit debate.
Balderdash is perhaps a slightly stronger term for senseless talk or writing or nonsense, bringing with it a sense of exasperation or invective. It was certainly in this sense that Thomas Macaulay used it in a footnote to his History of England from James II, published in 1848; “I am almost ashamed to quote such nauseous balderdash”. Unusually for a historian, there is no doubting where he stands there.
Where there is doubt, though, is where the word comes from. It was used in the late 16th century to describe a jumbled mixture of drinks such as beer mixed with milk or wine mixed with beer. It was this sense of jumbling and mixing which allowed the noun to move in the 1670s from the specific to the more general as a description for jumbled speech or writing which, in turn, is often nonsense. We have seen before that the move from noun to verb is not a new phenomenon and to balderdash was to adulterate or to mix up, to jumble. In his Travels through France and Italy, published in 1766, Tobias Smollett described French wine. “That which is made by the peasants, both red and white, is generally genuine: but the wine-merchants of Nice brew and balderdash, and even mix it with pigeons’ dung and quick-lime”. Not very nice!
As to its root, you pays your money and takes your choice. The Welsh have a word, baldorddus, which is used to describe idle, noisy chatter, although the pronunciation is somewhat different. Others favour the claims of verbs that appear in Dutch, Icelandic and Norwegian such as balderen which meant to roar or thunder. The problem I have with either of these theories is that the original meaning in English had nothing to do with noise or verbiage – it was all about mixing up liquids. I hesitate to go all Macaulay-like but perhaps, for once, it is enough to say we just don’t know.