January 19, 2014

Calling "The Vagina Monologues" "claptrap," can I claim to have intended a (tasteless) pun?

All right, there's a lot of discussion of the Maria Conchita Alonso incident in the comments to my post here, including my own participation, and I'm not sure if people are understanding my point, which is heavily premised on my long-held opinion that "The Vagina Monologues" is a terrible play. Those who put it on are engaging in expressive activity, and the additional expressive activity of excluding an actress because she's perceived as right-wing (assuming that's what happened) is part of their overall expression, and thus part of their freedom. It's all more speech in the marketplace of ideas, and I hope the speech influences people to decline to buy tickets to see "The Vagina Monologues" — ever, anywhere.

A commenter, fivewheels, had written:
Well, almost everyone agrees that they "can" do this -- retaliate against Alonso because of her opinions. The tricky part is whether they "should," and whether free speech values should be (shall we say) foremost, especially for artists.
First, thanks for the "foremost." Here's what I said over there:
Yeah, I agree, but we're already dealing with the subset of show business where they put on that play "The Vagina Monologues." They're in a politicized and stupid rut, so they might as well act like what they are. It helps people see it from a distance and save their time and money by avoiding it like the claptrap it is.

Pun intended!
But is the word "claptrap" a reference to diseased genitalia?! It sounds like it is. Stay away from that claptrap. I looked it up. It's not. The (unlinkable) OED makes it clear that the "clap" in "claptrap" is applause, not gonorrhea. The oldest meanings for "claptrap" are "A trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause" (example from 1788: "Sentiments, which, by the theatrical people, are known by the name of clap traps") and "Language designed to catch applause; cheap showy sentiment." Later, the word became more general, referring to any sort of nonsense, whether people clapped or not. And, this is obsolete, but there was, for a time, "A mechanical contrivance for making a clapping noise to express applause."

"Clap" originally meant a loud noise, notably referring to thunder. "Clap" referred to noisy talking before it meant applause, which might make you imagine that the "trap" in "claptrap" was the mouth as in "Shut your trap." But the "trap" is like the trap you use to catch an animal. The audience is being trapped into clapping by claptrap.

"Clap" meaning gonorrhea does go back as far as 1587, which is older than the reference to the noise of hands slapping together, which is traced only to a1616 (to Shakespeare's "Henry V": "Men, Wiues, and Boyes, Whose shouts & claps out-voyce the deep-mouth'd Sea."), but not as old as the general loud noise meaning which goes back to 1440.

"Trap" as a rude reference to the mouth goes back to 1785:  F. Grose Classical Dict. Vulgar Tongue: "Shut your potatoe trap." (Dan Quayle spelling in the original.)

So the question is: Does the incorrect etymology ruin the pun? And don't say: It ruins this pun, because it was in very bad taste. I conceded at the outset that the pun was in bad taste. If we get the pun, because we see the alternate meaning — as, here, with "clap" — is it not still a functioning pun? Remember to preserve the bad joke/not even a joke distinction.

ADDED: At Urban Dictionary, the #1 definition for "claptrap" is the correct one, described above, but meanings ## 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 definitions all reflect the imagined incorrect etymology I'd posited.

24 comments:

SGT Ted said...

I think what most people are viscerally objecting to is that the same people that are DEMANDING inclusion for themselves in the broader American culture are perfectly happy excluding others, for even pettier reasons than were used to exclude them.

Ann Althouse said...

"I think what most people are viscerally objecting to…"

Of course. What I'm doing is exploring the subject beyond the thing that most people have easily and already seen.

Interested in exploring?

virgil xenophon said...

"Interested in exploring?"

At what point do you (to use au currant academic jargon) "over-determine" this whole bit, AA?

Anonymous said...

"Remember to preserve the bad joke/not even a joke distinction."

A Good Springboard, That, Would Like to hear Elaboration. Almost Enough to Get Me to Put on My Speedos and Get Out of My Semi-Retirement.

Ann Althouse said...

@virgil I don't understand the question, but I am posting to define a topic, so, especially since there's already another post, I would like to see the discussion move forward. Those who are interested in getting a single message out, a talking point, for everyone to repeat with a simple drumbeat… well, they can do their thing on other blogs. It's not what I'm looking for in this thread.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

Like Limbaugh talking about confiscatory rates for ads, theater folks want to get people talking, which they think will get people paying (The Full Limbaugh).

Rush doesn't care if someone doesn't like Barack the Magic Negro; the theater folks don't concern themselves whether they appear as hypocrites or not, they just want the attention which they feel will enable their cause and line their pockets.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

I've come to think of Mindy Kaling as awesome and don't think she is dumb at all.

Her character on The Office is so brilliant because it captures the shallow existence of so many Americans of my generation and younger.

These are the theater folks, and they simply don't allow themselves to think thoughts that would cause consternation such as the idea they might not be good people and those who oppose them necessarily bad.

When they kicked out the actress, they weren't thinking of much besides how it would feel to kick someone out they don't appreciate.

Now that the thing has grown beyond itself, they are thinking of money.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

N. Podhoretz talking to WFB:

As the sixties wore on, the same conflict between loyalty to radicalism and loyalty to intellectual values began to make itself felt. The first place which it made itself felt-visibly, saliently-was at Berkely [pace Al Capp], where, of course, the so-called free speech movement began shouting down speakers who were in disagreement with its views and-you know, in general, in the sixties, you could be sure that anything that called itself the "free speech" movement was likely to be anti-

WFB: Free speech.

Podhoretz:-free speech. If something called itself the anti-war movement, it was probably in favor of victory for one side.

WFB: Or "liberation" movements.

P. 114 of WFB's On the Firing Line.

Ann Althouse said...

On the stick to the outrage talking point, I started a new post where that material will fit better than here: "Those who are pushing outrage over ousting Maria Conchita Alonso from "The Vagina Monologues'..."

Tina Trent said...

Given that you're talking about a play so humorless that its acolytes fail to notice that the title and all of its contents amounts to a bad pun, I doubt they would delight in your etymology.

Unfortunately, by referencing venereal disease and Renaissance authors, you have brushed against one of the only three things feminist academicians think about, i.e. how sad it is that people throughout history didn't value sex work as an autonomous career choice (the other two are Cosmo magazine's impact on self-worth and abortion rights). Expect consequences.

If anyone needs placating, you can order them hand-embroidered vagina art from Etsy: "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a hand embroidered vagina dentata made with deep purple and magenta embroidery floss and lots and lots of love that you never knew you needed until now! ... This handmade art piece also a great item to celebrate Valentine's Day with - as a Valentine's Day present for that special someone, for a Vagina Monologues actor or fan, or for a V Day activist."

Ann Althouse said...

Keep this thread for the topics raised in the post: language, puns, etymology, metaphor about genitalia. and the badness of the play.

William said...

The implicit argument is Alonso has expressed an opinion so outside the norm of decent people that she should be shunned. Alonso is not just wrong. She is immoral.......I think that's true for Fonda but not for Alonso.

raf said...

That the pun implies a definition of claptrap that is not the main definition actually improves the pun (to me), as part of the fun of puns is successfully catching on to somewhat obscure - or at least tangential -- possible alternate meanings. If a pun is too straightforward, it is too obvious, requires no mental gymnastics, and thus confers no basis for smug satisfaction at being in the know.

Real American said...

if she's such a right winger, why would she agree to do that Vagina Monologues in the first place? these people are idiots.

PB Reader said...

Just crap in the box.

Quaestor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hell, yes. It's a bad play.

I particulary remember being told by the performers on stage to stand, pump my fist, and shout in unison, "Cunt, cunt, cunt."

I'll go with a quotation attributed to President Truman, "If that's art, I'm a Hottentot."

Quaestor said...

Here the tastelessness is all in the eyes of the beholder, unless Althouse insists on claiming an intentional pun.

Claptrap is meaningless blather, which is the best one-word critique of The Vagina Monologues I've seen. But if one says parenthetically "pun intended" (Parenthetically, such practice I consider both condescending and unnecessary. It assumes the reader won't get the joke unaided, and it takes the fun out of finding puns, intended and otherwise.) it leads one immediately question what is being punned. The vagina of an unhygienic and morally lax woman could be described as a clap trap. I think the phrase must necessarily refer to distaff sexuality since the vagina does resemble many kinds of actual traps, such as a lobster pot or a leg-hold trap. Furthermore there is an actual medical condition which makes the vagina a literal trap, namely penis captivus. An infected and morally lax man could be called a toxin or described as toxic, literally a poisoned arrow in Greek, but not a claptrap. It's very obvious if a man has gonorrhea.

Since Althouse did insist on the pun, which I am unable to see as a plausible reference to the play itself but instead to persons, then I must concur that the pun was in poor taste.

Quaestor said...

Assuming the "intended pun" is in bad taste, and further assuming that I am correct in thinking the claptrap as a pun cannot plausibly refer to The Vagina Monologues, then what kind of a joke do we have here?

Not much, says I. So who is the claptrap? The actors? All of them, or just one? Is this merely a stab at insipid insult comedy, or is the jokester conveying some confidential intelligence on a woman connected with the production, or something else even more tenuous and banal? To be a bad joke something needs to be joke in the first place.

If claptrap was a joke I'd say it wasn't so much a bad joke as a totally failed attempt at a joke.

Quaestor said...

On the subject of good jokes in poor taste Eric Cartman presents for your edification the Aristocrats.

Alex said...

I find it curious that a bunch of post-menopausal women are staring down at their withered cooches and wondering why the rest of us don't give a shit.

Anonymous said...

Don't want to muff the punt here, or clam up unnecessarily. Time to think outside the box, so thanks Althouse.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

My favorite use of "claptrap" is in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. The speaker, as a species of joke, has made himself up as a celebrated professor of pessismistic philosophy, and here he is face to face with the professor himself, with an audience crowded round trying to figure out which is which, making up his own side of the conversation at haphazard:

'I see,' he sneered, 'you prevail like the false pig in Aesop.' 'And you fail,' I answered, smiling, 'like the hedgehog in Montaigne.' Need I say that there is no hedgehog in Montaigne? 'Your claptrap comes off,' he said; 'so would your beard.' I had no intelligent answer to this, which was quite true and rather witty. But I laughed heartily, answered, 'Like the Pantheist's boots,'at random, and turned on my heel with all the honours of victory.

Ken Mitchell said...

You're right about this; TVM is a _HORRIBLE_ play. Not an "OK play that might have worked if it had had better actresses", or "perhaps well intentioned, but flawed"; no, it's a frankly crummy, sexist, misanthropic diatribe.