When I first looked at the word claptrap, I assumed it was some type of onomatopoeic reduplication. Turns out I really missed the mark with that one. Our story takes us back to the thespian world of the 1730s, when actors would use specific rhetorical techniques and jokes, often without true substance, to get the audience applauding. Through their sycophantic tricks, they used words to trap the audience into clapping, and that's how the theatre slang emerged. Over time, the definition was broadened into a less-niche meaning of "nonsense speak", and today claptrap makes up about 0.00000988% of all English words used (down from its 1929 peak, which was about double that). Through Old English clæppan and Proto-Germanic klappona, the verb clap is eventually onomatopoeic, and through Old English træppe and PGmc trep, trap ultimately derives from PIE dremb, meaning "run".
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.