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.

17 thoughts on ““Happy-clappy”

  1. I imagine most Brits would consider American and American-esque happy-clappy to be stylish and hip eg gospel choirs. Whereas British happy-clappy, complete with guitars and tambourines, is probably considered a bit hippy and/or cringeworthy (unless one is happy-clappy oneself). Apologies to any happy-clappy readers!

    1. I think that most Brits would regard any Christian ceremonies involving excessive touching of one’s neighbours (eg hugging), hand waving or clapping to be an expression of happy-clappiness. This would include the stereotypical trendy vicar led sing song accompanied by guitar and tambourine, but also extends to gospel. Few Brits would consider anything associated with religion to be stylish or hip.

  2. I rather thought there was an Americanism – “clap happy” – which referred to audiences that approve of anything. A couple of lazy google searches has done nothing to confirm this, however.

    1. OK, slightly less lazy: a Google N-Gram search comparing “clap-happy” (WITH the hyphen) indicates it has much greater use than “happy clappy.” I almost wonder if the author wrote “clap-happy circus” only to have some confused editor who had heard the Britishism change it to its current form.

  3. In Australia, the Hillsong group is the largest and best(?) known of the arena type Christian Churches. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the best known member of Hillsong, They are known colloquially and collectively as the ‘Happy Clappers’.

  4. I would venture that “happy-clappy” goes with another phrase that we use over here in the UK, which is “god botherers” which we use for the very small minority of people who go to church and take it seriously. We have an infrastructure of vicars and bishops to do all that for us.

    I find it interesting that those who as “happy-clappy” find it necessary to use amplification and sit outside busy stations yelling at passers by how much they have managed to read just one book in their lives. They don’t sound very “happy-clappy” at all in this mode.

    British people, on the whole, are unimpressed by people who claim to have a special relationship with invisible beings.

  5. Another reduplicative that has caused controversy in the UK recently is ‘nitty-gritty’, which some have tried to ban because they associate it with slavery. Does the term cause similar controversy in the US?

    The story is outlined below:

    The BBC has rejected a complaint against its award-winning political editor Laura Kuenssberg over her use of the well-known phrase “nitty-gritty,” which anti-racism campaigners claimed has its origins in the transatlantic slave trade.

    The widely known broadcast journalist used the term on BBC Brexitcast during a discussion about the recent departure of prime minister Boris Johnson’s press chief, Lee Cain.

    “It has been a bit more than an HR nightmare,” Ms. Kuenssberg said of Mr Cain’s departure, “it’s been a giant power struggle behind the shiny black door where decisions are taken on all our behalf, and before we get into the nitty-gritty for the saddo nerds like us who are fascinated by a lot of this soap opera, if you think it doesn’t matter, well, this is about who’s in charge [and] this is about who’s bending the prime minister’s ear.”
    Despite the context, Ms. Kuenssberg’s use of the term “nitty-gritty”sparked a complaint from a listener. Some anti-racism campaigners argue that the term refers to the lice and dirt that was found aboard transatlantic slave ships after enslaved Africans had been removed onto land following a long voyage. While the complain was reportedly swatted away at first by Brexitcast’s producers, it eventually made it to the executive complaints unit of the BBC, which ultimately ruled in Ms. Kuenssberg’s favour that her use of the phrase was not wrong.

    Nitty-gritty is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “the fundamentals, realities or basic facts of a situation or subject. The heart of the matter.” the dictionary also says that the term can be traced back to at least the year 1940 and was likely used initially by African-Americans.

    The term was however banned last year by Sky Sports over concerns about its linguistic origin. However, career linguists have disputed claims that the term has its roots in slavery.

    Furthermore, the phrase was reportedly included on a list of terms to be avoided by commentators of sporting events at a “diversity briefing” held for broadcasting staff from all of the UK’s major channels back in 2020. They were reportedly told to use expressions like “the basic facts” instead.

    Gary Martin, a widely quoted language expert, and head of the website phrases.org.uk has carried out an investigation into the term and said, “there is no evidence to support the suggestion that ‘nitty-gritty’ has any connection with slave ships.”

    “It may have originated in the USA as an African-American expression, but that’s as near as it gets to slavery.”

  6. ‘Happy clappy’ also brings to mind other over-enthusiastic religious movements such as Hare Krishna. It’s what I always think of when I hear the REM song ‘Happy shiny people’.

  7. I’m intrigued that the email suggests this is a word Scots use of a certain type of English religiosity. Do (or did) those kind of churches not exist in Scotland, or is it the case that – as with many pejorative phrases – it’s easy to apply it to a country with which you have a traditional enmity whether there’s truth behind it or not?

    An English Atheist 🙂

  8. Happy-clappies are also quite often beardy-weirdies wearing woolly pullies. Although the latter two types are often trick-cyclists.

    1. My dad was a vicar in the Church of England. The Church of England has three wings: The Anglo-Catholics (Smells and Bells), the Liberals (the Wishy Washies) and the Evangelicals (the Happy Clappies). Scots may also use the term Happy Clappy, but it’s certainly been in use in England for a number of decades.

  9. Pingback: “Over-egged”
  10. Happy-clappy generally refers to (over)enthusiastic, evangelical religions, but like all words it can also be extended into a metaphor.

    From my vantage point in the UK, I would have interpreted a “happy-clappy TV audience” as a wildly enthusiastic group of fanatic followers, a cult with the celebrity/presenter as its head.

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