The meanings of “klappen”

klappen-meaningHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll take a look at the meaning of



You might not have heard of it yet, because courses and books often miss out on it for some reason (the reason is that they suck). But I can guarantee you that once you know it, you’ll hear it everywhere. And it’s an absolute must have if you want to speak idiomatic German.

Some of you have probably notice that klappen looks a fair bit like to clap. And indeed, the two are related.

They’re what experts call an onomatopoeia, an attempt to capture a sound in speech. And the sound klappen and clap are trying to capture is the sounds of two swans gracefully swimming by. Or in completely other words: two objects hitting each other.
The example that comes to mind immediately is clapping hands, but that’s actually NOT klappen – it’s klatschen.

  • I clap my hands.
  • Ich klatsche in die Hände.

Maybe the German version is more about imitating the sound a group applauding, which does sound a little wet. Or maybe Germans just have sweaty hands… I don’t really know.
Anyway, the verb klappen itself slowly evolved, from the mere imitation of a sound, toward what might lead up to the sound. And that’s why many prefix versions are today used in the context of folding. I mean, not folding laundry, of course. A robust, solid folding. Like…   “moving” things that are solid and have a hinge or something like that.
The best example is probably a book

  • Der Papa klappt das Buch zu.
  • The dad closes the book.
    The dad claps the book shut. (lit.)

And just like you can zuklappen (close) the book, you can also aufklappen (open) it, even though that doesn’t really make a sound, because the focus of the verb has shifted toward that idea of moving at a hinge, folding. And the various prefixes tell us how exactly we “fold” it.

  • “Im Büro ist es soooo heiß… und man kann die Kackfenster nur anklappen.”
  • “It’s sooooo hot in the office… and we can only crank open the crappy windows.”
  • Seine Bookmarks kann man ein- und ausklappen.
  • You can fold in and fold out your bookmarks.
  • I (un)fold up my camp chair.
  • Ich klappe meinen Campingstuhl zusammen/auseinander.
  • Wo kann man einstellen, was der Laptop macht, wenn man ihn runterklappt.
  • Where can I determine what my laptop does when I fold it.

Little side note… German also has the verb falten, the direct relative to to fold.  And that covers the “soft” instances of folding, pretty much. Like a blanket or paper. Those are just too soft to klappen. Unless you’re Chuck Norris, of course. He can fold a blanket so hard that it makes a clapping sound.
“Emanuel, it’s 2020. Chuck Norris jokes are not funny anymore.”
Oh whatever… first of all, Chuck Norris doesn’t age, he just improves, and so do his jokes. And second of all, I don’t see any alternative on the horizon. The Rock is a soft kitten compared to Chuck.

Anyway, back to topic. So a lot of the prefix versions of klappen are about a sort of folding, and there are also quite a few nouns have to do with a hinge and folding. Like Klappstuhl (fold-able chair),  Klappfenster (crank open window) or  Klapphandy (iFold… coming soon) .
And there is also a stand alone noun… die Klappe. It can appear in quite a range of contexts but it is usually basically flat thing on a hinge that closes something.

  • Thomas hat einen Herzklappenfehler.
  • Thomas has a  heart valve defect.
  • “Schatz, Simba ist definitiv zu fett. Er steckt schon wieder der Katzenklappe fest.”
  • “Honey, Simba is definitely too fat. He’s stuck in the kitty door… again.”

Klappe is also the word for the slate the use in movie sets.

  • “The Avengers – Pandemic”: Szene 11, Klappe, die Erste. Und Action
  • “The Avengers – Pandemic”: scene 11, take one. And action.

“Klappe, die x-ste”. This is like THE film business phrase. Everyone knows it and they really do say that on set… maybe because it has the nice side effect of covertly yet directly telling everyone to shut up. How so? Well… one of the most common uses of Klappe is as a colloquial, slightly rough word for mouth.

  • Halt die Klappe!
  • Shut up/Shut your mouth!
  • Große Klappe, nichts dahinter.
  • All hat and no cattle.
    Large hatch/clapper/mouth, nothing behind it. (lit)

    (common idiom for people who brag a lot or make empty threats)

It’s not as aggressive as Fresse or Maul and with  friends it’s totally fine, but with your boss… not really. Unless your boss is your friend, of course. Then it’s okay. Or if you’re your own boss, and you want to tell your brain to be quiet you coul… anyway, I digress.

Now, the examples we’ve seen so far were actually all nouns and prefix versions.
But what makes klappen the must have that it is, is the meaning it has by itself.

klappen – the everyday meaning

And by itself, klappen is a colloquial way to express the of to work out. In sense of to go well, to be okay, to function.
Here’s a couple of examples.

  • Hat das mit dem Umbuchen geklappt?
  • Were you able to change the booking?
    Did that the altering of the booking clap (lit.)
  • Frisches Obst und Gemüse nur aus der Region – das klappt nicht immer.
  • Produce, fresh AND local – that doesn’t always work/go together.

And this usage actually isn’t very old. It evolved during the time of the industrial revolution when workers started associating a clacking sound with the idea of some mechanical part falling into place, something that fits.
Think of a modern car door. There’s big money being payed to design a discreet, comforting, reassuring, bold, adventurous, kid friendly, independent, vintage, modern, sexy but not too sexy, pleasant but not dull, kick ass clacking sound that lets you know the door is closed. The sound of a mechanical part properly latching into place… gives us a sense of satisfaction.
But even though it’s not that old, this “new” klappen is used A LOOOOOT and in various contexts.

  • Ich hab versucht, was du gesagt hast, aber es hat leider nicht geklappt.
  • I tried what you suggested but it didn’t work.
  • Ich habe mir vorgenommen, mich bewusster zu ernähren. Es klappt nicht immer, aber ich bin auf dem richtigen Weg.
  • I’ve decided to be more conscious about what I eat. It doesn’t always work but I’m on the right path (I feel like this isn’t really idiomatic… let me know what would be better :)
  • Trainingsplan Bauch: So klappt’s mit dem Waschbrett.
  • Belly training schedule: that’s how to get a washboard.
  • Morgen Treffen klappt bei mir leider nicht.
  • I won’t have time tomorrow.

It would be wrong, though, to say it’s a translation for to work (out).
ecause in one (grammatical) aspect, klappen is actually more narrow.

  • “What should we eat?”
    “How about pasta?”
    “Works for me.”
  • “Was sollen wir essen?”
    “Wie wär’s mit Pasta.”
    Is okay für mich/Von mir aus.”
  • I have to write down something…. a napkin works fine.
  • Ich muss was aufschreiben… eine Serviette würde reichen.

In these two example, what works is a noun. Pasta and a napkin get the job done. And klappen wouldn’t work in these examples. Why not?
Well, we can go all back to the very origin. Klappen is the result of a process. There needs to be activity for klappen. And that’s why klappen only works if we’re talking about an activity.
Meeting at 6, eating healthier, fixing the computer, trying something… all these things can klappenBut actual things like napkins or a pasta don’t.

  • Ich versuche etwas. Es klappt.
  • I try (doing) something. It works.
  • “Und?”(asking the IT guy who is is trying to fix the server)
    “Also, ich habe jetzt den Server rekonfigublah blah […] blah blah neu installieren.”
    “Aahhh…. verstehe. Und? Klappt’s?”
    “Mal sehen.”
  • “So?”
    “Well, I’ve reconfigublah blah […] blah re-install it.”
    “Ah… I see. And? Is it working?”
    “We’ll see.”

Klappt’s and hat’s geklappt are really super common combinations, by the way, and I’m sure you’ll hear them a lot. The ‘s is just a shortened es that refers to what’s being tried.
And another very common combination is klappen mit.

  • “Hast du eine Idee, wie  ich Fettwein-Flecken aus meiner Hose krieg’?”
    Mit Salz klappt’s bestimmt.”
  • “Any idea, how  I can get fat-wine stains out of my pants?”
    “Try  salt… that’ll probably work.”

Here, mit connects the “tool” and we can nicely see again, that things themselves don’t klappen. The removing the stain with salt is what klappt.

  • Mit Maria hat’s leider nicht geklappt.
  • It didn’t work out with Maria.

Here, the mit connects the “goal”… in this case Captain Context would fill us in that it was “having a relationship with Maria”. Here are two more examples

  • Hat‘s mit dem Praktikum geklappt?
  • Did getting the internship work? (lit.)
  • Did you get the internship?
  • Hat’s mit dem Salz geklappt?
  • Did the thing you did with the salt work? (lit.)
  • Did the salt do the trick?

All right.
So this is the meaning that makes klappen so incredibly useful and trust me… it is everywhere. It’s not particularly high German but it isn’t slang either and you can definitely find it in print, too.
And to wrap this up, here’s a nice common klappen-pun.

  • Das einzige, was hier klapptsind die Türen.

Always a good laugh at the weekly meeting if nothing goes according to plan :)
So… this was our German word of the Day “klappen”.
As always, if you want to check how much you remember, you can try to take the little quiz I have prepared. Which won’t klappen, of course, because the quiz isn’t finished yet and I haven’t put it here. But it’ll come.
And of course, if have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples of your own just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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