The Grammarphobia Blog

Why slap + stick = slapstick

Q: The word “slapstick” appears a couple of times in the New Yorker’s review of Stan & Ollie, the new film about Laurel and Hardy. Where does “slapstick” come from?

A: The word “slapstick” comes from a paddle that made a loud, slapping noise when whacking someone in the rowdy comedies of the past. And not quite the past. Punch still carries a slapstick in Punch and Judy puppet shows. And percussionists use slapsticks for sound effects.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, the “object from which the word slapstick derives” originated in 16th-century Italy, when Harlequin, a stock character in Renaissance comedy, “was given to wielding a paddle which was designed to make a terrible noise when he hit someone.”

“This paddle was eventually known in English as a ‘slapstick,’ and it became a symbol of that type of highly physical comedy,” the dictionary adds. “The word slapstick then came to refer to the comedy itself.”

The original slapstick carried by Arlecchino, who wore a diamond-patterned costume in Commedia dell’arte, was called a batacchio, the Italian word for a knocker on a door

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a slapstick as “two flat pieces of wood joined together at one end, used to produce a loud slapping noise; spec. such a device used in pantomime and low comedy to make a great noise with the pretence of dealing a heavy blow.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” uses the word in its paddle sense: “What a relief, truly, from the slap-sticks, rough-and-tumble comedy couples abounding in the variety ranks.” (From the July 4, 1896, issue of the New York Dramatic News.)

The sense of “slapstick” in that citation seems obscure to us. The next cite is clearer: “The special officer in the gallery, armed with a ‘slap-stick,’ the customary weapon in American theatre galleries, made himself very officious amongst the small boys.” (From the Weekly Budget, Oct. 19, 1907.)

The dictionary’s first citation for the term used adjectivally is from the Oct. 10, 1906, issue of the New York Evening Post: “It required all the untiring efforts of an industrious ‘slap-stick’ coterie … to keep the enthusiasm up to a respectable degree.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” as a noun meaning “knockabout comedy or humor, farce, horseplay” is from a 1926 issue of the journal American Speech: “Slap-stick, low comedy in its simplest form. Named from the double paddles formerly used by circus clowns to beat each other.”

Although people aren’t being whacked with slapsticks in comedy routines these days, percussionists use them to imitate the sound of slaps, whip cracks, gunshots, and so on.

If you’d like to see one in action, we came across a video online that demonstrates the use of a slapstick to make sound effects.

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