Word of the Day- “klappen”

klappen-meaningHello everyone,

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



And why? Because it is colloquilicious :)
Klappen is what experts call what must be one of the least English looking English words: onomatopoeia… an attempt to capture a sound in speech. The inspiration of klappen, which is of course related to English clap, is the sound of two swans gracefully swimming by… or in other words: two objects hitting each other.
Of course clapping hands comes to mind but interestingly, this specific clapping sounds a little different in German.

Maybe the German version is more about imitating the result of many people applauding, which does sound a little wet. Or maybe Germans just have sweaty hands… I don’t really know.
But anyway,from a mere imitation of a sound, klappen has evolved into being a real verb. It is a robust version, noisy version of folding. You can klappen things that have a hinge or something similar and that are somewhat solid. The best example is probably a book

If you do that with enough force it makes for a really good clapping sound so the verb makes sense here. But as I said, it’s become a real verb and  just like you can zuklappen the book, you can also aufklappen (open) it, even though that doesn’t really make a sound. In essence,  klappen is about moving something by a hinge or a fold or something. And the various prefixes tell us how exactly we “fold” it.

Now, it sure looks like to fold is a good translation. But German also has falten and falten would be more appropriate for, say, a blanket or paper. Those are just too soft to klappen… unless you’re Chuck Norris who can fold a blanket so fast and hard that  it makes a clapping sound.
So… folding is often a translation for klappen but at least for me it doesn’t really capture the whole “clanky” vibe.
Anyway, klappen is part of quite a few compounds that all have to do with a hinge and folding… like Klappstuhl (foldable chair),  Klappfenster (crank open window) or  Klapphandy (iPhone 6+) . And there is also a stand alone noun… die Klappe. In essence, most Klappen  are flat things on a hinge that close something.

Not everything that fits that description will be called Klappe though. Sometimes it’s going to be called Tür (door), sometimes it’s going to be called Deckel (lid) and sometimes there isn’t any consensus at all… for example for a trunk lid…  Kofferraumtür, Kofferraumklappe, Kofferraumdeckel… people use all of those. Now, in situations like these, usually Google image search is helpful tool. You just enter the word and see what pictures you get and that’ll give you an idea of the “scope and average” of the word. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for Klappe because  all you’ll get is the stupid slate they use on movie sets.

“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 courtly word for mouth.

Wait, did I say courtly? I meant more back yard-ly … Klappe is colloquial and a little bit rough. It’s nowhere near as agressive 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. Unless you’re among others and you have to keep a professional demeanor. Then it would be out of plac.. what am I even talking about. Here’s is a super common proverb with Klappe about people who just talk and brag

All right.
Let’s recap. Klappen started out as an imitation of a clapping sound and over time it shifted toward describing a sort of folding movement. That’s nice. But it’s not that interesting.
There is another meaning though and that meaning makes klappen a proud member of the “People use me every day but I’m in no textbook ever so learners get confused when they hear me”-club.
Here are two examples:

The core idea is  to work out.   in sense of to go well, to be okay, to function.
Klappen got that meaning during the time of the industrial revolution when workers started associating a clacking sound with the idea of something that fits. Just 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 good feeling.
Now, this klappen is used A LOOOOOT

It would be wrong though to say it’s a translation for to work (out) because klappen is in a way more narrow in use.

In these two example, what works is a noun. Pasta and a napkin get the job done. Klappen wouldn’t work here. Why not? Because klappen is not about  doing a job, it’s about the sound you get when you doing a job successfully. 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 k or das, which stand for whatever it is that is being tried.

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

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.

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

All right. So this is the meaning that makes klappen colloquilicisou 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.

Always a good laugh at the weekly meeting if nothing goes according to plan :)
So… this was our German word of the Day “klappen”. It used to be an imitation of a clapping sound, but it has taken on two meanings. One is about the folding movement of things that have a hinge, the other is the super common to work in sense of activities that work out.…. using salt to remove a stain, taking a test without preparing for it, fixing the tire with chewing gum, meeting at 7… stuff like that.
As always, if you 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.