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Young woman with gonorrhea (the clap) symptoms lying in bed

Why is gonorrhea called the clap?

Written on December 23, 2022 by Gillian (Gigi) Singer, MPH, Sexuality Educator & Certified Sexologist. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Table of contents


Origins of the clap

According to a peer-reviewed article from 2012, gonorrhea has a recorded history going back to ancient times in ancient Chinese and Greek civilizations as well as among traveling international businesspeople around the world [1]. They continue to explain that “Galen, a Greek physician (AD 130-200), is credited with naming gonorrhea after gonos (semen) and rhoia (to flow)” as he had “mistakenly attributed the disease to an involuntary ejaculation of semen” [1].

The article notes that years later in the 1500s, there was a widely recognized relationship between prostitution and gonorrhea, and this is when it got its nickname “the clap,” which derives from the French word les clapiers (literally meaning rabbit huts), which referred to “the small huts where prostitutes often lived and serviced their customers” [1].

Another level of symbolism for the “rabbit huts” is that rabbits have the reputation of reproducing frequently (hence the saying “breeding like rabbits”), and the saying “making like rabbits” refers to people who have sex multiple times in one night. Rabbits are receptive to mating about every 15 days, and a rabbit pregnancy only lasts about 32 days [2].

Another theory is that “the clap” comes from “clappan,” which is “an Old English word meaning ‘to beat’ or ‘to throb.’ This likely reflected gonorrhea’s symptoms, which can include burning, itching, or pain” [3].

A third theory for the origins of the nickname refers to early treatment methods before the use of penicillin. One method involved a clinician injecting mercury, silver, or antibacterial agents into the infected urethra and pressed, or “clapped,” the sides of the penis to massage in the medicine. The other treatment seems perhaps the most unpleasant, which involved the clapping “of the hands on the penis — or slam it between heavy objects — in an attempt to clear the discharge” [3].

Thanks to modern medicine, blunt force trauma to the genitals is not standard practice for treating gonorrhea.

Modern understanding of gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) that infects the urethra, rectum, throat, or cervix. It is most often transmitted via vaginal, oral, or anal sex, but it can be passed from a pregnant person to an infant during childbirth [4].

Signs and symptoms

All of the following symptoms are outlined by the Mayo Clinic [4].

Common symptoms of gonorrhea in males include:

  • Painful urination
  • Pus-like discharge from the tip of the penis
  • Pain or swelling in one testicle

Common symptoms of gonorrhea in females include:

  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Painful urination
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods, such as after vaginal intercourse
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain

Rectal symptoms:

  • Anal itching
  • Pus-like discharge from the rectum
  • Spots of bright red blood on toilet tissue and having to strain during bowel movements

Eye symptoms:

  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Pus-like discharge from one or both eyes

Throat symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Joint symptoms:

  • “If one or more joints become infected by bacteria (septic arthritis), the affected joints might be warm, red, swollen, and extremely painful, especially during movement” [4]

Diagnosis

You can get tested from home by using Everlywell’s at-home chlamydia test to get a diagnosis. If your test results come back and indicate that you may have chlamydia or gonorrhea, you will be connected to our independent physician network and may receive treatment from them, at no extra charge to you.

Getting care with Everlywell

If you aren’t sure or have questions about getting tested or your test results, you can make a Virtual Care Visit with Everlywell.

With STD telehealth from Everlywell, you can discuss gonorrhea treatment with a healthcare provider quickly and easily. Depending on your insurance, you pay between $10 and $60. Many major insurance plans are accepted.

Gonorrhea: signs and symptoms

Can gonorrhea go away on its own?

Chlamydia symptoms in men: key points to know

Can you get gonorrhea from oral?


References

  1. Lee KC, Ladizinski B. The clap heard round the world. Archives of Dermatology. URL. Published February 1, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2022.
  2. McClure D. Breeding and reproduction of rabbits - all other pets. Merck Veterinary Manual. URL. Published December 13, 2022. Accessed December 21, 2022.
  3. Martin M. Why is gonorrhea called “The clap”? Three theories. Ro. URL. Published May 2, 2022. Accessed December 21, 2022.
  4. Gonorrhea. Mayo Clinic. URL. Published October 5, 2021. Accessed December 21, 2022.
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