Ask Greg: Why is Gonorrhea Called the Clap?

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Question: Why is gonorrhea called the clap?

Greg’s Answer: You’ve gotta love the weird folklore associated with certain nicknames. And this one is probably one of my favorites. But let’s get something clear right off the bat: a lot of people think the clap refers to chlamydia since they start with the same letter. But the clap is actually a euphemism for gonorrhea. Both are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) caused by bacteria, but they require different treatments (more on that below).

Now: why is it called the clap? There are a few different theories behind the nickname, but the one I like the most has to do with an old-timey treatment. Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that can affect both men and women, but men are more likely to show symptoms like greater frequency or urgency of urination (meaning they have to pee all the time or feel like they have to pee but then nothing comes out). They may also get swelling or redness in their penis or testicles or pus-like discharge. Legend has it that once upon a time, people believed that clapping their hands hard on both sides of the penis could forcefully expel the pus and cure the infection. Sometimes this clapping was done by smashing the penis between two hard objects (like two boat paddles according to this article from the Women’s Health Foundation or a book and a table like this Public Library of Science blog suggests).

Are you wincing in pain yet? I hope I don’t have to actually tell you this treatment is not recommended, 100 percent ineffective, and you definitely should not try this at home. It reminds me of another antiquated treatment for a type of skin bump called a ganglion cyst. Back in the 18th century, some people believed that hitting the cyst really hard with a bible (!) would magically cure the condition. To this day, they’re sometimes called “bible cysts,” but again, clapping, smacking, or otherwise hitting a part of your body with an object – no matter how holy – will not heal you.

Another theory holds that the clap is a bastardization of the French word “clapier” which is an old term for “brothel” and also for the nest of rabbits (which have a reputation for being pretty sexually active). There’s also a theory that the name comes from an old English word “clappan,” which means “to beat or to throb.” But none of these linguistic origins are as shocking and entertaining as the actual clapping theory, in my humble opinion.

But the truth is, gonorrhea is no laughing matter, While we do have a treatment for it (a double-whammy of oral and injected antibiotics), we don’t want people thinking they can just get their dose of drugs each and every time they get infected. Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection like strep throat, so you don’t build up an immunity to it – you have to get treated every single time you have it. Antibiotic resistance is a real threat – that means if people keep getting infected and taking the same drugs over and over, the bacteria that outlives the medication gets stronger and may eventually become resistant to the treatment. And as far as treatments go, the ones we have are the only options – there aren’t any new antibiotics in the pipeline for the foreseeable future. As officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn, 30 percent of new gonorrhea cases every year are already resistant to at least one drug. And  the consequences of gonnorhea are serious – if left untreated, the infection spreads to the joints and can even be fatal.

So, bottom line: make smart choices, protect yourself, talk to your provider about getting tested, and do what you can to avoid having to deal with the clap.

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