Reader Lesley McCullough emails:
I write to you from the Yukon Territory to ask about an expression I read in the Stephen Colbert profile by Joe Hagan, contained in the recent Holiday issue of Vanity Fair. Hagan writes, ” It’s all a reminder of how little distance there is between Colbert the CBS entertainer and Colbert the stuck inside a room like us, no happy-clappy circus at the Ed Sullivan Theatre to buoy him.”
I have always known “happy-clappy” as a scornful UK expression for super cheerful Christians who beat tambourines and sing modern hymns loudly and off key. I lived in Scotland as a kid and there it always seemed to be applied to evangelical English. And Google seems to bear my understanding out.
So, is this a one-time Britishism misused by the writer who I believe is from the States? Or is it evidence of a new Not One-Off Britishism? Or does the phrase have a different meaning in the U.S. than in the U.K. and Canada?
My answer’s to Lesley’s questions are yes, probably not, and I guess. The OED bears out her sense of the meaning of the expression, which falls under the classification “reduplicative” (like “arts-fartsy” and “argy-bargy“). It’s both a noun (“A member of a Christian charismatic or evangelical group whose worship is characterized by enthusiastic participation; [more generally] a charismatic or evangelical Christian”) and an adjective (“Of, relating to, or characterized by membership of such a group, or enthusiastic participation in worship; charismatic, evangelical”). The definitions probably should take note of the usual negative connotation. For example, someone wrote in The Times in 1993: “Is the man at the helm of the church an intelligent astute leader or a happy-clappy simpleton who will plunge his church into disestablishment?”
The phrase seems to have popped up first in Australia. The “Word Histories” blog reports:
The earliest instance of happy-clappy, used in this sense, that I have found is from the very beginning of the review of Dr J. I. Packer’s book Keep in Step with the Spirit, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) on 1st April 1985:
“Two brands of Christianism making themselves felt today are the ‘born again’ kind professed by Jimmy Carter and supportive of Ronald Reagan, and the happy-clappy, tongues-speaking, faith-healing kind called Pentecostal until it invaded the mainline churches in the late 1960s and became ‘charismatic renewal’.
Subsequent examples from Word Histories and the OED are all from Australia, South Africa, or the U.K.
As for “happy-happy” having a different meaning in the U.S., my qualified answer has to do with the power of reduplicatives. Word Histories found two American examples. Neither one has the religious sense and in both cases, I would imagine, the writer felt he or she made it up: A 1958 article from North Carolina invoked “the soothing strains of a string band and the happy-clappy feet of nimble square dancers,” and a 1990 Illinois review of an outpost of the Olive Garden restaurant referred to “those happy-clappy waiters and waitresses who seem to love to sing birthday cheer, but appear to know next to nothing about the menu.”
I imagine it was the same with Hagan.