‘The Clap’: How did Gonorrhoea get its Nickname?

Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection that is incredibly infectious, and is the result of the bacteria known as Neisseria gonorrhoeae (1). The infection is spread very easily, because many people who have contracted the infection do not experience symptoms, and therefore are unaware that they are infected. Symptoms that can result from a gonorrhoea infection include the likes of painful or increased urination, severe pain in the lower abdomen, a sore throat, and a yellow/greenish or even white discharge. The infection can be transmitted by anal, oral or vaginal sex, but is able to be treated and cured with the use of antibiotics.

The Clap

There are many disturbing facts about the sexually transmitted infection known as gonorrhoea, but one of the oddest is that relating to its infamous nickname – the Clap. It is quite common for sexually transmitted infections to acquire slang terms because of the social stigma that surrounds discussion of such topics; but just where and why did this rather bizarre nickname originate from? There seems to be nothing in the way of a definitive answer to this question, probably because the infection has been around for so long – since at least the 1500s – although there are certainly plenty of theories, some of which are rather more ‘out there’ than others.


The clapping treatment

One possibility is that the nickname came from the rather wince-inducing treatment that was actually once prescribed for those suffering from the condition – clapping the penis against a table with a book, hard, or at least giving it a strong clap with one’s hands (2)! The idea behind this was that the treatment would ensure that the unpleasant discharge associated with the infection would be removed from the penis. The fact that such treatment is also likely to cause serious damage to the penis itself, and that the mere suggestion of such a thing would make any male cringe in pain and disgust, makes it hard to believe today that anyone would actually go along with it. 

That being said, some recent studies have suggested that this ‘clapping’ treatment was actually part of a procedure that used a large syringe to wash out the urethra, which, if true, was still almost certainly very painful.


Some believe that the nickname has been derived from the word ‘clapier’, a French term that actually means brothel, as it was very easy for gonorrhoea to be spread in such places at one time (3). Back in the Middle Ages, ‘clapier’ was also the word used by the French to refer to the hutch or nest of a rabbit, which, considering that rabbits are somewhat infamous for their incredible sex life, could also be another possibility for the origin of the term. In French, the disease became referred to as clapier bubo, a bubo being either an infection of the groin or an inflamed nymph lode.

However, another theory suggests that the clap as a nickname for gonorrhoea actually came about as a bastardisation of another word. Gonorrhoea was very common among soldiers during World War I; it has been suggested that the patients were treated by personnel who referred to them as “having the collapse”, with the word collapse then being bastardised into “clap”.


Another theory as to the origin of the term ‘the clap’ is that it derives from “clappan” (4), an old English word that means to throb or to beat. Given that the common symptoms of gonorrhoea include a throbbing sensation in the penis (the result of infection and inflammation), this is certainly a credible theory – although it should be noted that the word “clappan” did not originate in the English language until after the existence of the French word “clapier”.

The Drip

The Clap is not only the slang term that is used as a euphemism for gonorrhoea. The Drip is another, though less common term, the origin of which is almost certainly derived from the infection’s most common symptom – the pus that discharges from either the penis or the vagina (5). This symptom also occurs with some other infections, such as chlamydia, which has sometimes resulted in people incorrectly using the term to describe other conditions. Anyone who believes they are suffering from any form of STI should get tested


(1) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gonorrhoea/

(2) http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2010/09/17/gonorrhea-and-the-clap-the-slap-down-treatment/

(3) https://www.stdcheck.com/blog/why-is-gonorrhea-called-the-clap/

(4) https://www.plushcare.com/blog/why-is-gonorrhea-called-the-clap/

(5) https://www.stdcheck.com/blog/why-is-gonorrhea-called-the-clap/

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