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 : 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 . . .
DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN REGIONAL ENGLISH
CLEAN THE CLOCK (Also wipe the clock or gauge): In railroading: to apply the air brakes, bring the train to a sudden stop.
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<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>
____________________________________<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.
(above quotes from archived sources)<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]]
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.
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.<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>
Ken G – September 12, 2010