"Clean their clocks" (1879)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Thu Nov 13 04:52:36 UTC 2008

> Here's my guess: originally "clean the clock of [the locomotive]" meant
> "bring [the locomotive] to an abrupt halt", "clock" probably originally
> referring to some gauge with a pointer which would sweep across its face
> when the engine was coming to a stop.
> Then "clean [someone's] clock" = "stop [someone] in his tracks". Then
> "clean [someone's] clock" = "defeat [someone] utterly". I guess.

But then there's this, from 1879:


(p. 131):


Tom Armstrong grippit still his game,
Ye never saw sic fun,
That Yarrow cheil, Jim Sisterson,
Spanghew'd a Tarset hun'.
The Meun gript Moffat by the neck,
An' swore he'd clean their clocks,
Some gat the skin peel'd off their shin
Ower that Tarsettearian Fox.


-- from a poem in northern dialect; fox-hunters apparently are fighting
over a fox. [I suppose "cheil" = "child", "spanghew" = "throw into the
air", "hun'" = "hund" = "dog".]

Is it the same "clean [one's] clock"? Reckon it might be. What does that
imply etymologically? Don't know.

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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