cleaned his clock

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Sep 13, 2010 7:49 am

PMDW, I don’t mean to sound pedantic, but seems to me that since your assertion is not a certainty, your first sentence should be prefaced with something like “I think.” And others should be peppered with “it is believed by some,” and similar expressions.

1) CLOCK [late 19th century]: Slang for ‘the human face’ – see Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Dickson’s War Slang (WW I) . . . [[OED: Probably from ‘clockface. – ’FACE: The surface or plate which bears the marks, digits, or hands on a watch, clock, or similar dial (perhaps originally with allusion to the human face). clock-, compass-face, etc.]

2) CLEAN [1812]: Slang for ‘beat,’ ‘thrash,’ ‘clobber,’ ‘trounce,’ ‘utterly defeat,’ ‘drub,’ ‘vanquish.’ [The verb 'clean' originally meant to deprive of all one's money as through gambling or theft—also (formerly usually) constructed with out] — Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of Americanisms, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, On Language by William Safire . . .


CLEAN THE CLOCK (Also wipe the clock or gauge): In railroading: to apply the air brakes, bring the train to a sudden stop.
<1929 “Should the engineer ‘wipe the gauge’ or ‘clean the clock,’ it means that the has brought the train to a complete stop by setting the air brakes.”—Bookman, item 69.526>

<1958 “CLEAN THE CLOCK—To apply emergency air brakes. This causes the indicator needle on the gauge (or clock) to drop back to zero and the ‘clock’ is then empty.”—Woods Words by McCulloch>

<1962 “Clean the clock; wipe the clock; wipe the gauge.”—American Speech, Vol. 37, page 132>
CLEAN ONE’S CLOCK [[also FIX ONE'S CLOCK]]: To beat someone thoroughly [[literally]] physically [[or figuratively; or in competition]]. [[To attack and punish someone]] – Chapman’s Dictionary of American slang
<1966-69 “Cleaned his clock” [[Note: This is merely the result of a survey taken in these years and does not imply first in print.]]

It is interesting to note that the expression that applies to railroading is CLEAN THE CLOCK, whereas the other is CLEAN ONE’S CLOCK.

As we proceed, an important question to ask is whether these two expressions developed independently or are somehow comingled in their origins (see below).

The earliest example I was able to find for CLEAN ONE’S CLOCK was from 1874 (see below). Also, this is consistent with the 19th century approximate first-in-print dates for CLOCK and CLEAN provided above.
<1874 “The Meun gripped Moffat by the neck, / An’ sware he’d clean their clocks. / Some gat the skin peel’d off their shin / Ower that Tarsettearian Fox.”—‘Wanny Blossoms’: A New Book of Border Songs and Ballads with a Brief Treatise on Fishing, Fly, Worm, AND Roe (1875) by James Armstrong, page 72>

<1899 “. . . make his enemies walk the plank, while the scuppers [[drains at the edge of the deck]] of his gallant bark reeked with gore! . . . Aw, now he wouldn’t!’ interrupted Bob . . . ‘Dewey would fix his clock in less than no time!”– Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois), 29 March, page 6>

<1900 “I will come half way. To make things warm, I have $25 to $100 that I can clean your clock in less than an hour.”–The World (New York, New York), 26 January, page 12> [

<1903 “He said if he couldn’t sing he wasn’t going to be fooled that way and so he hunted up the German professor to ‘clean his clock,’ as the saying goes, but the mild little German said: ‘Vell, I didn’t bring my clock mit me.’”— Daily Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), 21 February, page 5>

<1908 “It took the Thistles just one inning to clean the clocks of the Times boys."—Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey), 28 July> [[earliest use in sports I was able to find]]

<1921 (headline) TOOK HIS GIRL TO THEATRE—TO ‘CLEAN RIVAL'S CLOCK.’”—Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel (Iowa), 4 October, page 1>

<1942 “‘Who knows? Lobert said yesterday, eager for the Brooklyn game. ‘Maybe we’ll clean their clocks.’”—Gettysburg Times (Pennsylvania), 18 September, page 3>

<1944 “For those of you who may have illusions of an easy job before us . . . we are going to have to ship men and supplies some 9000 miles to get at the Japs before we clean their clocks.”—Deming Headlight (New Mexico), 14 January, page 2>

<1953 “He should be barred from the ring [[wrestling]] or get someone to clean his clock and send him back to Germany.”—Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York), 22 August, page 78> [[several sources say that the expression had its start in boxing]]
(above quotes from archived sources)

The earliest example that I could find of the railroad meaning, CLEAN THE CLOCK, was from 1929 (see above quote), but, of course, it could have been coined somewhat earlier. If I were to bet money on this one, though, I would go with ‘beating someone thoroughly,’ etc. for the earlier definition (see 1874 quote above) and the railroad meaning for the later, with the origin of each sharing the fact that CLOCK appears to be slang for the ‘face’ of a person in one and the ‘face’ of a pressure gauge in the other. The railroad 'clean,' however, meant that the pressure gauge read zero (was a 'clean' reading of zero), whereas the other CLEAN had the meaning to 'trounce' (1819).

The railroad air brake was invented by George Westinghouse in 1869. And in 1872 his improved version, which required the use of a pressure gauge, provided the railroading CLEAN THE CLOCK expression. Speaking practically, it must have taken some time for the new invention to have produced this phrase – perhaps years (earliest quote above is from 1929) although it may actually have appeared somewhat earlier in the spoken word or even in print. It would also seem that the CLEAN THEIR CLOCKS used in the 1874 song was probably an existing expression, although it is conceivable, but I don't think likely, that the author of the song coined it.

Although the dates of possible origin for the two expressions could be close to each other, it looks to me that the turn of phrase in the song takes the prize. I would think that the song would have used a phrase that was already in common use, whereas the railroad expression (lingo) would have taken some time to become generally known to railroad folks, and then some further time for it to make the crossover from railroad lingo to find its way into common slang if, in fact, that crossover was ever made. It is, however, conceivable that the railroad folks already knew the earlier slang expression and felt that its words were a good fit for when their air brake gauge read zero pressure, and so they highjacked it for their own use while having different images in their mind for CLEAN and CLOCK.

I suppose all this is confusion is why no definite origin of CLEAN ONE’S CLOCK is ever provided in any of the sources I have checked. But I hope that my above machinations may have provided some modicum of clarification.

P.S. Your statement that O. Henry’s citation “‘fix your clock’ is clearly a non sequitur when read in full context” strikes me as itself being a non sequitur.

<1904 “You’re a hell of a sect of people [[Germans]]. I reckon we’ll fix your clock for a while just to show what we think of your old cheesy nation. . . they seized Fritz . . . bound him fast to a tree [[and road off]]”—The Complete Works of O. Henry, Vol. IV. page 305>
They didn’t physically beat him up (they seized him), but it seems to me that seizing and forcefully tying a person to a tree and then riding off, falls under the purview of FIXING SOMEONE’S CLOCK.

Ken G – September 12, 2010


Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Sep 16, 2010 6:58 am

.. well done Mr Perfect .. a very clear statement and very logical suggestion .. the post hoc attempts at finding an etymology are often shallow and/or make connections between ideas that are completely disparit (sp) ..

WoZ who has cleaned some clocks
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Sep 16, 2010 8:37 pm

Thanks Wiz, I appreciate that. Every so often I do a posting that I feel really good about – one that has broken new ground. This not uncommon expression has been written up by many ‘reliable’ and unreliable sources and I believe not one that I checked out had it right .

William Safire of the New York Times, in his On Language column insisted in 2002 that the expression originated in sports and dated from 1959. Four years later in 2006 he revisited the subject and revealed that he had pushed back the date by finding a 1908 newspaper article in which the expression was used in reference to baseball.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable said with surety that its origin was from military usage in WWII.

American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms had it positively originating in the military in the mid 1900s.

And these were just the big boys talking. As far as my analysis goes, I would say that with a very high degree of probability (but not certainty – certainty should only be used when there is incontrovertible proof) that the expression arose sometime before 1874 when someone connected the existing slang meanings of ‘clean’ and ‘clock’ to produce CLEAN ONE'S CLOCK.

Moral of the story: You can’t believe everything you read in the funnies! (<;)

Ken – September 16, 2010

Re: cleaned his clock. Time for an additional meaning?

Post by TwinCamAlfa » Sat Mar 23, 2013 3:36 pm

I never knew that "to clean someone's clock" meant to wallop him in the face, and so forth.

In referring to myself, I've used the phrase to mean getting readjusted, reset, restored, returned to a state of well-being. I like the sound of the words, the alliteration of the "cl" sound.

I had a similar revelation about the phrase "piece of work". After I called a friend a "piece of work", he immediately asked what I meant. So I looked it up and found it had negative connotations. But what I meant was that he is a unique character, a fine person, a "piece of work" in the sense that he is one of God's creations.

There are words that have dual and opposing meanings, such as secrete, peruse, and discursive. So I hope idioms can have the same. Or I'll just insert this new twist into my use of various phrases.

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Mar 25, 2013 10:13 am

.. of course twinCam anybody can ascribe to any word their own peculiar meaning .. unfortunately usage also requires understanding so if we all went our own ways and just allowed words to mean whatever we liked we would finish up as Humpty Dumpty was in speaking with Alice >>

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

.. a man might also be judged by his words and if they are awry then what conclusion might one draw ?? ..

.. but to your clock .. you may notice that clock has a slang meaning of face .. so if you told me you were cleaning your clock I may conclude that you were shaving and washing your face .. true ?? ..

.. and I hope you are ready to defend yourself in a physical sense if you call the wrong person a nice piece of work regardless of what you mean ..

WoZ who IS a piece of work
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by TwinCamAlfa » Mon Mar 25, 2013 2:38 pm

Well, huff and puff and strut my stuff, I do detect a slight odor of challenge.

About "piece of work", may I offer, "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—..."

Now—scratch, scratch—who the heck said that? And how long has it been standing?

When I see the word "clock" I think of the many components of a clock, most especially the inner works, which do need regular cleaning and maintenance.

And those judgements people may make upon hearing the words of another? Must we all live in fear of being pronounced guilty by all manner of folk with widely varied intent?

That guy Dumpty seems scornful of the language. He even admitted it. I'm not scornful, I hope. Just different, I'm sure.

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Mar 25, 2013 6:13 pm

Dumpty cracked under pressure, and the rumour that he invented the word game Scramble is almost certainly false. And if Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare, they make a fine pair.

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by TwinCamAlfa » Mon Mar 25, 2013 7:04 pm

It's fun to be here.

I like this thing.

Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon Mar 25, 2013 11:43 pm


Re: cleaned his clock

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sat Mar 30, 2013 2:14 am

.. welcome twin, if I might call you that .. we are curious mix of odd socks .. some being red & white seemingly match with one which is green & gold .. there are those who have knowledge, those who seek it and those who would have you believe they invented it .. some reveal their past and proudly declare their professorship and then there are those who act as if they are and others who might in the deep of the night profess anything to a ship if it lay at anchor .. we have the learned and the learners the teachers and the taught who are stressed about the nature of words and idioms and past participles and gerunds and gerbils and other sounds that go labial in the night and fricative in the morning .. but welcome to the ship and all who sail on her or surf the bow wave ..

WoZ letting down the life-sized boat
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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