The things you learn in conversing with fellow professors… Why was gonorrhea called the clap? A strong possibility is because of a once-prescribed treatment: clapping the penis hard, for example, with a book against a table or a swift clap with the hands.
Here is KnowsWhy.Com:
There have been many theories on why gonorrhea is sometimes called clap.
For one, it is believed that clap refers to the old French term, ‘clapier’, which means brothel. Before, gonorrhea was easily spread through these places. However, there is also another theory, which referred to how the infection was treated. To treat gonorrhea, it involved slamming a heavy book or any object down the penis so that the discharge would come out. This might not sound like a good treatment since it involved smashing the penis.
Another probable reason why gonorrhea was referred to as clap is that it was a bastardized form of a word. During the World War days, gonorrhea was very common among the GIs. It was said that the personnel who treated the patients would refer to the GIs as having the collapse. As a bastardized form of the word collapse, it was called the clap.
The sex therapist Dr. Carol Clark in this video over at eHow – Why Is Gonorrhea Known as the Clap – demonstrates the clap between the hands. No, no, not actually. But she gamely takes us through the motions, really grimacing at the thought of this treatment.
I spent some time this morning trying to track down in the literature whether this story is actually true. It just sounds too good to be true! I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer. This e-book on gonorrheaprovides a lot of good information about the disease, from symptoms to history to treatment, but not a concrete answer. And I have one article coming on interlibrary loan, but I’m not sure if it will contain the needed information. So if you do know of some relevant literature, please leave a comment.
What I did find, and found fascinating and terrible at once, was this full-text 1918 article in the Journal of the National Medical Association by C.V. Roman entitled Syllabus of Lecture to Colored Soldiers at Camps Grant, Stewart, Hill, and Humphreys. Roman opens with his philosophy of life before getting into his views on sexually transmitted diseases.
Here is one section that caught my eye, where he goes from a view of the nervous system to Nature’s punishments for our behavior:
The brain and spinal marrow form one continuous body and all of our nervous energy is therefore stowed in one cavity, our eggs are all held in one basket. One bowel but three spickets. There are three ways by which we may use up our powers of life. We can use it up in thinking and thereby accomplish our aims and purposes in life. We may use it up in eating and become a glutton or a hog. We may join the donkey and guinea pig and spend our life’s energy in sexual dalliance.
Nature gives us the privilege of choosing our course but reserves the right to pay or punish according to our conduct. Nature has set her stand of disapproval on sexual promiscuity by fixing venereal diseases as a penalty for prostitution.
In another section, he focuses on gonorrhea, complete with his views on venereal diseases and the moral character of those who spread them:
Gonorrhea Clap, “running range,” is the most dangerous of the three [venereal diseases]; because the most easily spread, the most lightly considered (only a cold) and the most difficult to cure. It begins as a little smarting when urine is passed, finally pain, swelling and a discharge that is highly contagious – the smallest bit of it in the eye may destroy vision.
This is a frequent cause of sore eyes and blindness in babies – mother, usually a pure, good woman, has been, unknown to her, infected by her husband, and she in turn infected the baby while passing through the birth canal.
A man that would willfully put out the eyes of an innocent baby is the meanest of criminals. Yet that is what a man does who takes clap to the marriage bed. If there is any Hell, I think the hottest pace in it ought to be reserved for the man who willfully spreads venereal disease. A man with no respect for a pure woman is not fit to live.
Link to Kindle version of Gonorrhea (Deadly Diseases & Epidemics)