Derivation of "go like the clappers"

My boss is fond of using the phrase ‘go like the clappers’ to mean ‘go very fast’, and she doesn’t know where it comes from. She’s a Kiwi, but spent a few years working in London, where she thinks she picked up the saying. Googling the phrase yielded a theory that it derives from bells being used to mark time, but there’s no conformed answer. Have any Dopers come across this phrase, and do they know from where it derives?

As anyone with the Clap (gonorrhea) can attest, it burns like hell to pee, and you want to get it over as fast as possible, so you go very fast.

Beyond that, I got nothin’.

Well, I’ve used the phrase all my life, and I grew up in NZ, so it is fairly native.

But it is an english expression, seems to be from forces slang, and (as you note) probably related to bell clappers - maybe from “clappers of hell” (from “hells bells”?) , although this, too, is unattributed. The context is associated with action (run like, go like, work like, rain like) and has been shortened to the modern form.


It’s reasonably common in Australia too.

I’ve never heard it before in the USA, so I don’t think the 'merkins will be adding much to this discussion. But I can hardly wait to see the SD once you Commonwealth-ers (-ians?) figure it out.

I too have never heard the phrase used except by New Zealanders (esp. in the variant form “run like the clappers”). (Haven’t been to Australia and don’t know many Australians, though, so for all I know the Aussies use it just as much.)

Here’s something from the ABC’s Wordwatch journalist that tentatively supports the “bell” link:

I picked it up from my dad (b. 1928), but I don’t think anybody under 30 or 40 would use it much.

To this Brit, it’s not an unusual thing to hear, but perhaps slightly old-fashioned. Perhaps most likely heard on Radio 4 cricket commentary.

Substitute ABC for Radio 4, and that’s a pretty accurate summation of the case in Australia too. I just wonder if a twenty year-old would know what it means.

I’m sure you’re right. It’s certainly more likely to be used by the 40 plus brigade. I have occasionally heard it used by younger folk. No doubt they’ve picked it up from parents/grandparents.

It’s a bastardization of <<going like the tea-clippers>>

okay, I got nothing

I think the bell origin is reasonably likely, but I’ll point out that clapsticks are also known as clappers, and could certainly be said to go. Also they are distinctively Australian Aboriginal instruments which could account for them being known locally, in NZ, and to some extent UK but not in the US.

The only times I’ve heard this, I thought that the person was mis-speaking for “go like the clippers”. Referring to clipper ships (, which were about the fastest sailing ships of their time.

Is it actually “the clappers” in some British colonies?

This link dates the phrase to WWII as RAF slang. They suggest bells too. I’d always assumed it to be a reference to maracas.

“Clapper” was rhyming slang for a Ford motor car (clapperboard = Ford). In the early days of British motor racing, Ford cars won a lot of races. So, “go like the clappers” - go like the Fords, move quickly.

This is also completely untrue

Yes, definitely. Never clippers.

A thought: wartime Britain, and airfields in particular, would have been full of alarm bells, warnings, etc. Especially for aircraft crews (think Battle of Britain). So this origin seems to make a lot of sense, not referring to some lugubrious handbell or peal of church bells, but to something with much more urgency, and much louder.

Plus, I used the word ‘lugubrious’ :smiley:

Could a pre-WW2 plane in RAF service, rather fast, have been nicknamed a clapper?

If it’s of RAF origin, I don’t see why we need to start searching for obscure origins of the use of the word, when the literal one describing bells fits the situation fine. Occam’s razor, and all that.