Clam

Just say oops.

Dear Word Detective: In musicians’ parlance, especially trumpet players, the word “clam” is used to refer to a missed note. A “clambake” is used to refer to a concert, piece, or part of a work with a LOT of wrong notes. I’ve no idea if this has any relation to “clam up” of the early 20th century or the use of “clambake” to refer to people smoking pot in a closed automobile. The trumpet player email list will be most appreciative. — Tim Phillips.

clam08.png“Clam” is an interesting word. Most uses in English refer back in some way to “clam” as the name for the shellfish (as Merriam-Webster puts it, “any of numerous edible marine bivalve mollusks living in sand or mud”). The origin of “clam,” however, lies far from the beach, in the prehistoric Germanic root word “klam,” which meant “to press or squeeze together” and also gave us “clamp.” It was the tightly clamped shut shell of the aquatic “clam” that gave it its name.

“Clam” has developed numerous slang and figurative uses over the years, from “to clam up” meaning to remain silent, lips pressed together like a clam’s shell, to “clam” as jocular slang for a dollar, probably from a supposed ancient use of clams as currency. About once a week I’m asked for the origin of “Happy as a clam,” a saying folks find mysterious only because it is rarely quoted in its full form, “Happy as a clam at high tide,” i.e., when it is least likely to be discovered by predators. “Clambake,” originally a beach party featuring clams “baked” in open pits, has also been used as a sardonic term for any fancy social gathering (as well as, I’ll take your word for it, that ritual of “doobie parking” where participants presumably get “baked” in a car closed up like a clam).

The likening of a closed mouth, or the human mouth in general, to the bivalve sort of “clam” may underlie the use of “clam” to mean a missed or flubbed note, especially if the term originated in connection with wind instruments. This usage dates back to at least the early 1950s and since then has been applied to an error in any sort of musical or theatrical performance (“Bing Crosby … always said, ‘Leave the clams in, let ‘em know I’m human,’” New York Times, 1991). Perhaps the “error” sense of the term lies in the failure of one’s “clam,” or mouth, to perform correctly.

But another, and to my mind stronger, possibility is that the “mistake” sense of “clam” derives from a completely different “clam.” In the 18th century the sound of two bells (in a bell tower) rung simultaneously (usually a mistake by the bell ringer) was known as a “clam.” This “clam” was probably “echoic” in origin, intended to mimic the dissonant, unpleasant sound itself (the same way “clang” and “slam” were formed), and actually appears to be the source of our modern “clamor,” meaning a jumbled roar of noises or voices. It seems entirely logical that “clam” as a term for mistake in a bell tower could have become a generalized musicians’ term for any sort of embarrassing flub in a performance.

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