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The Clap

Dan Steiner applauds our 10th edition with a brief look at clapping's origins


Image: cc Evan-Amos


“Ahhhh,” I hear you thinking, “a typical Impolite Conversation themed article,” but nay, not quite. The clap to which I am referring is the onomatopoeic one produced by the collision of one palm against another. In the English language where better to look first than the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary?


“A clap, to clap, clapping – The noise made by striking the hands together; the act of so doing; applause, 1509”. So, first used in the very same year that the school that I attended was founded – coincidence, of course; reason to celebrate – absolutely. So we know that clapping has been around for at least 500 years; that’s a good start.


A recent experience on a plane from London to Buenos Aires sparked my curiosity on this subject. On landing, the majority of the non-British passengers broke into spontaneous applause, which surprised me and, as a Brit, seemed a little bit of an affront to my habit of not demonstrating my emotions outside the accepted norms of when to so do. This led to several questions: Did they not think that the pilot was usually able to land safely? Was it appropriate to clap or insulting to him? When is it appropriate to clap? Does it mean different things in different cultures? What was the origin of clapping and its evolution? So let’s start with the last one first….


Elwyn Simons, head of Duke University's Division of Fossil Primates, said in the January 2009 edition of Esquire Magazine “We don't know how far back it goes, not without a time machine. Cavemen and human ancestors — we don't know whether they clapped hands or not. But you do find primates doing it in the wild. It's not to applaud something; it's because they're frightened or want to call attention to food."


So it would seem fair to assume that clapping is in fact a natural part of our development, and by six months old, babies may start to clap their hands together, though at first, their hands may not actually make contact with each other at all; instead they just imitate the motion of clapping. This highlights that the baby understands their hands can be used together to produce a result, the noise of the clap. It also is a sign of ongoing visual and motor skill development that babies start learning to bring their hands together.


A baby learning to clap its hands is the culmination of constant development and an indication that they are learning to understand their body and its abilities and movement. Under the age of twelve months though, a child doesn't appreciate that hand clapping can be a sign of appreciation or joy, only that it is a new skill that pleases other people. So originally as now, clapping was used as a form of non-verbal communication with wide-ranging significance.


The most common usages of clapping are to express joy, celebration and appreciation and the first documented clappers in history were the Romans. The earliest mention of clapping that can be found by historians dates back to 300 BC. Several plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence have explicit instructions in them for times when audiences should applaud. The Latin word used, ‘plaudite’, only means applause and not specifically clapping, so it is still disputable that this reference refers to clapping, however, the Romans had several forms of applause, and clapping was one of them. Other common forms of applause included finger snapping, waving the flaps of their togas, stomping their feet and pounding their fists on the table.


Clapping survived to the Dark Ages and became very popular in France by the 16th century. During this time, the French created the claque, a group of professional clappers hired to work at dramatic performances. Claques became highly organized and were hired by theatres and operas from a central agency. Soon the practice spread throughout most of Europe.


The act, or even one might say ‘art’, of clapping however is not always used for approval. Who could forget the infamous slow hand clap that the Womens’ Institute inflicted on our  hapless former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000, audibly expressing their displeasure at the direction his speech was heading. In fact it is the frequency, volume and collective rhythm of the clap that determines its ultimate significance and the depth of feeling. Clapping is versatile and can effectively be used to show sarcasm and insincerity as well as to mark time in music and to help open up blocked blood circulation.


It is clear that situationally, clapping is used at different moments depending on your culture. The British tend to stick to their old traditions and habits. You clap at sporting events, the theatre, and concerts; and should one stray from these norms you would expect disapproval from most of those around you. However this rule is evolving: I remember watching the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales on television in 1997 and the commentators were quite shocked at the first ripple of applause that started after her brother, Earl Spencer’s eulogy outside the Cathedral, which then spread inside. Who claps at a funeral?


But yet, I have to admit that in January, at the funeral of a cousin, the Rabbi gave such a personal, well written and heartfelt eulogy that it actually felt wrong that there was no applause when she finished, just awkward silence. Why are we so repressed that we can’t express how we feel? Well that’s a whole different topic...


In the US, the audience bursts into spontaneous applause at the end of a film in the cinema, whereas we only applaud at live performances. Woe betides any unfortunate ingénue who claps at the end of a movement during a classical concert rather than at the end of the piece. We increasingly clap at weddings once the vows have been exchanged but it still doesn’t quite feel right to be clapping in church because it isn’t a performance – or is it?


So why did the passengers on my flight decide to burst into spontaneous applause on the plane’s successful landing? To celebrate, of course, and what’s wrong with that?


Cue Applause

Dan Steiner

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