Today, virtually everyone has heard of or had some kind of encounter with STIs or sexually transmitted infections. But, few people know the origins of these infections and how they got their present names.

Some STIs, like gonorrhoea, are commonly referred to by colloquial names like “the clap.” Others, like chlamydia and syphilis, have foreign-sounding names. In reality, all three of these STIs got their names, both proper and slang, from history.

Originally, all STIs were known as “venereal diseases.” This is an ancient name derived from the Roman god of love, Venus. However, over time, various prominent STIs all got their own names. This article dives into how gonorrhoea, syphilis, and chlamydia got their names and how they changed through the ages.

Gonorrhoea, a.k.a. “The Clap”

Today, many people know gonorrhoea as “the clap.” But, few people who use this term are actually familiar with the origins of the name “the clap.”

Gonorrhoea is actually a very ancient STI. It started to become a problem around the 16th century in Western Europe. Around the same time that the disease rose to prominence, the name “the clap” originated. There are three competing theories about why gonorrhoea was given this slang name.

The first and most popular theory is that “the clap” was derived from the French word for brothel, “clapier.” This word meant a rabbit’s nest and was a play on the active sex life of rabbits. The French used “clapier” as a slang term for brothels. Anyone who got gonorrhoea got the “clapier bulbo,” which the English likely shortened to “the clap.”

Gonorrhoea is often referred to as the clap

A second and more jarring theory is that “the clap” refers to how men would attempt to cure themselves of gonorrhoea. Back in the 1500s, there were no antibiotics, and medical knowledge was very limited. Some men who contracted gonorrhoea believed that by either clapping their penis between their hands or forcefully slapping their penis against a board, they would force out all of the infected discharge.

A third and final theory is that “the clap” refers to the old English word “clappan,” which meant “throbbing or beating.” The painful throbbing symptoms of gonorrhoea may have given rise to the name.


Syphilis is perhaps the most prolific and well-documented STI in history. Syphilis raged through Europe in the late 15th century, especially affecting promiscuous members of royal courts. Originally, it was not called syphilis.

Some theories think that the disease was brought back to Europe by Columbus’ sailors, who picked it up on their voyages to the Americas. Originally, syphilis was coined as “the great pox.” But, almost immediately, everyone who got syphilis decided to blame a foreign culture that they disliked for the disease.

Italian doctors called syphilis “the French disease,” while the French called it the “Neopolitan disease” after Naples. Some Russians called it “Polish disease,” while the Poles, in turn, blamed the Germans. Muslims blamed the disease on both Christians and Hindus.

It wasn’t until 1530 that an Italian poet, Giralamo Fracastoro, wrote a poem about a character named syphilis who angered the sun god Apollo. Apollo then allegedly infected syphilis with his namesake disease.


Unlike other historical STI names that were based either on prejudice or slang, chlamydia got its name from a scientific error. Chlamydia was an issue as far back as 1500 BCE. But it got its name when scientists thought that chlamydia cells were “intracellular protozoan pathogens” that cloak themselves over the nucleus of infected cells.

The name chlamydia was chosen because the Greek word “chlamydia” means cloak. Now, researchers and scientists know that this cloak is actually something known as an “inclusion.” However, because the name “chlamydia” was recognized internationally for many years, the name still lingers.


Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis are three STIs that got their names in history for various reasons. Gonorrhoea was called “the clap,” syphilis was blamed on foreigners, and chlamydia was named incorrectly.

Regardless of how these STIs got their name, none of them are infections that you want to be surprised about contracting. Better2Know offers individual STI testing kits for chlamydia and other frequently contracted STIs. Better2Know also offers STI screens, including the Peace of Mind Screen that specially screens for chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhoea all in one.

You can use Better2Know’s online appointment system to find a nearby clinic and get tested today.


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