Tag Archives: England

Cleaning Clocks on the Rails & Taking a Punch in the Face

Cleaning someone’s clock is an expression mainly used by sportswriters, when they’re referring to an huge defeat. The phrase can also be used to describe someone being punched in the face. In any sense of its use, the implications are the same. The clock is the sufferer of some sort of defeat, while the guy with the rag & the Windex is the winner.


Fenway Park during the 1914 World Series. During game 1, The Boston Braves would clean Philadelphia Athletics’ clocks, 7-1. (Image in public domain)

On written record,”cleaning someone’s clock,” is still a baby. It was first published in its entirety in 1959, but this is just its written history. As I’ve said before, written traditions are way younger than oral ones, so this one most likely goes back a bit more. Without further delay, let’s look into the few ways the phrase may have come to be.

The first is extremely easy. It’s such a simple idea, that it fits in two lines. It’s this:

The word “clock,” when used as a verb sometimes means to hit. The phrase we know may be nothing more than a simple variation of that meaning.

The second meaning comes from the days of steam locomotives.

Pressure gauges on the engine were called clocks because of their slight resemblance to the timepieces. They were circular & had needles, which looked like the hands of a clock. These needles indicated how much steam pressure was in the different systems of the engine. “Cleaning someone’s clock” is a reference to the brake gauge. This is because when an engineer needed to execute an emergency stop, he would pull a lever, emptying the steam out of the breaking system. The needle on the “clock” would then indicate that the steam pressure was at zero. Zeroing the needle was also called cleaning. It’s easy to draw the connection from this use of the phrase, to sportswriters’ usage: When you clean the clocks on a train, it comes to a complete stop. Likewise, when you clean the clocks of a sports team, the scoring momentum comes to a complete stop & they have no chance of winning.


A Pressure gauge, or clock.                     (Image in public domain)

The third is a simple combination of two different slang terms.

Londoners who speak English with a Cockney accent use the word “clock” as a nickname for a person’s face. On the website, The Phrase Finder user, The Fallen confirms this in a post, where he claims that it comes from the fact that we refer to the part of the clock with the numbers & hands as the face. He remains at a loss as to why cleaning one of these clock faces has come to be a reference to a punch.

Let’s examine the verb “to clean,” as a slang word. According to the website, The Word Detective, it’s quite easy. On this side of the pond, it has been linked synonymously with the verb, to defeat. Most sources date it to the early Nineteenth Century.

Take clean, when used in the above context & put it next to the word clock, meaning face, & you have an expression which means “to defeat someone’s face.” I’d say punching someone in the face would definitely defeat it.

Out of all three options, I would have to pick the last two. There isn’t much to the first one, but then again simplicity might be the key, as it has been before. At any rate, I have always liked this expression & it’s cool to know where it may have come from.

Have a good week & I’ll see you next Monday.

For now, though, now you know; you’re welcome.

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A Baker’s Dozen: Avoiding Serious Punishments

Hello everyone. I hope you all had a good long weekend.

Here we go.

For the most part, bakeries sell their food by the dozen, or batches of twelve, but many continue to advertize sales which call for a baker’s dozen. When you ask for this, you’ll always get thirteen pieces of whatever you ordered, for the price of twelve. At first thought, it may seem like an arbitrary number, but the idea are well founded, & probably saved more than a few lives.

To figure out what in the world the tradition means, we have to go back about four thousand years & work our way forward.

One of the earliest milestones of human civilization was the city of Babylon. It was located on the site of modern day Baghdad & as such an important city in our history, it gave birth to many ideas, which we still use variations of today. One of these fundamentals to society was one of the first comprehensive codes of law ever written. Bakers just happened to fit into this set of laws in a very strict way.

Here’s how:

A bustling city needs its inhabitants to be fed & Babylon was no different. So, what did they turn to to feed the population? Bread. Historical records show that because wheat is easy to grow & grind into flour, foods made from the grain have been a primary food source since he dawn of mankind. Because of this need for food & the widespread knowledge of how to cultivate wheat, bakeries were prominent around early cities.

While most of the shopowners were honest, some of them were sneaky & took advantage of their patrons. At the time, the baker’s standard was to give them a box of twelve loaves of bread. This was before any laws were put into practice to protect the customers’ interests, so bakers would produce smaller loaves, or if they were feeling exceptionally audacious that day, they’d short them a loaf. More money could be made because people would unknowingly spend the same amount for less bread.

Well, people started to catch on & quickly became sick of being cheated out of food, so much so that laws were passed to prevent it from happening. If you were a baker in Babylon & you cheated someone out of bread, your hand would be chopped off. Fast forward to Ancient Egypt, & your ear would be cut off & nailed to your bakery door. That’s how important bread was to those early societies.

Rules like this remained the same for almost two thousand years, until they faded into obscurity. Once this happened, the bread based conning started to become an apparent problem again. Slowly, people started to notice again & just like before, became upset. In fact, the issue became so prominent, that King Henry III of England, tired of being shorted, himself, lost his patience. In the 1260s, he called his court into session, specifically to address this. Out of this meeting, a law was passed, which stated that the weight of a wheat kernel in relation to the weight of a coin had a direct correlation on what to charge for loaf of bread & a gallon of wine. The law was called the Assize of Bread and Ale Act & it went something like this:

By the consent of the whole realm of England, the measure of the king was made; that is to say: that an English penny, called a sterling round, and without any clipping, shall weigh thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear, and twenty-pence do make an ounce, and twelve ounces one pound, and eight pounds do make a gallon of wine, and eight gallons of wine do make a London bushel, which is the eighth part of a quarter.


This was groundbreaking, as it regulated the standard weight of a loaf, while letting the price of a loaf to fluctuate based on the market price of wheat. Before long, penalties for cheating customers were brought back into play, with various claims as to what they were. Some historians advocate that the punishment was flogging, while others claim that the Babylonian loss of a hand was the retribution.

Regardless of what the actual punishment was, most bakers didn’t think he extra dollar or two was worth it. Flogging often resulted in death & so did hand-removal, so to combat the risk & to assure mistakes weren’t made (you could also get nailed for an accident), bakers would throw in an extra loaf. It assured that the original dozen would still be there, in case something rendered one of the loaves inedible. This would push the weight of the basket over the legal requirement, even if bread accidentally came out of the oven too light. It was a win-win situation for everyone because customers would walk away happy they had an extra piece of bread & bakers were happy they were able to keep their hands. All in all, I’d say it was a good trade.


A medieval bakery. Notice the baker’s dozen batch of bread on the table (Image in Public Domain).

The act only lasted a few because the king decided that sitting in a jail cell was a better alternative to losing the country’s bakers to whippings & blood loss, right?

Wrong. The law remained unchanged until 1863, when England passed one of its Statute Law Revision Acts,  Parliamentary act which nullifies or revises past laws that have become obsolete. That’s six hundred years of on-the-books flogging & be-handing as a remedy for lying to customers.

So, my friends, the next time you walk into a bakery, take some time to think of all those poor souls who sacrificed their hands so you could get a free cupcake with your twelve others.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Running Amok: A Coked out Rampage

When someone is acting crazy or panicking, we say that they’re running amok. The roots of this expression come from the peak of British colonization, during 18th & 19th centuries.

First, in order to give you an understanding of everything, I need to give you a brief history of the Opium Wars.

See, back in the day, the British Empire had colonies across almost the entire planet. They used to say, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” & that was pretty much the truth. The Crown needed a way to keep a watchful eye on all its subjects, but had a tough time doing so because the military was thinly stretched out almost everywhere. In order to keep tabs, the British government was very ruthless & it stooped to some pretty dirty strategies.

One of these strategies was the distribution of what are now considered illegal drugs. One of the most famous instances (Note how I didn’t say, “first,” or, “only.”) of the British using drugs to get their way was when they wanted to monopolize the tea trade & China refused to let them.  See, the British government exported drugs, which were then legal, to the Chinese in exchange for the tea. When opium & cocaine started to become addictive problems for the Chinese, their government put heavy restrictions on the inflow of the substances.

Now, the British didn’t like this because, hey, they loved their tea & weren’t getting nearly as much of it. What did they do? They smuggled drugs illegally into Chinese ports, flooding the population with opium & cocaine.  The Chinese  knew what the British were up to & weren’t about to take it lying down, so they stopped the outflow of tea. The British then retaliated by blockading the port of Hong Kong, until the Chinese were forced to use their navy to try to stop it. Here’s where it gets messed up . This was the plan the whole time.  See, they correctly anticipated that a massive chunk of the Chinese population, including the sailors, would be hopeless addicts by the time the first shots were fired & that they, themselves wouldn’t be. They quickly defeated the Chinese navy (The sailors were too busy being jittery & paranoid, or slumped against a ship’s mast in a euphoric heap, to fight)  in the First Opium War & seized Hong Kong & by default, the tea trade. Messed up, huh?


This is pretty much what happened before the English took over Hong Kong. Note the one warship successfully taking on the 7 Chinese Junks full of opium loving sailors.
(This image is in the public domain in the U.S. The copyright has expired, because it was first published prior to January 1, 1923.)

Okay, so I know that was a long story & I also know it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the phrase “running amok”. I promise it does & that I told you that story to tell you this one:

About 50 years before all of that, the English military started to make a presence in Indonesia. Fast forward to the Opium Wars & they now have a smart, yet dirty way of controlling their colonies. Guess whose population quickly became drug addicts?

The addicts included one tribe in particular, which was already known for its warrior spirit (This warrior spirit is also known as regressing into a blind rage & indiscriminately butchering men, women & children from captured villages). Even on their home turf, members of this tribe would become possessed by the spirit without any warning whatsoever, buy a weapon from a local market, & flip out & kill everyone. They referred to this fighting spirit as mengamuk The rough translation is, “to make a furious and desperate charge.” People possessed by the spirit were called Amuco. As you can imagine, a tribe on insane amounts of uppers, which already poses a threat because of its ruthless brutality in combat & for random public killing sprees before getting their hands on cocaine, wound up scaring the crap out of the colonial soldiers. The English Regulars were understandably quite intimidated by the Amuco & rumors started flying about these super coked-out warriors. In true colonial fashion, they bastardized the actual word & replaced it with an Anglicized version that’s easier to say.

So, when you say someone is running amok, you’re actually implying that they’re an indiscriminately murderous drug using, spree killing warrior.
…I mean, I guess if you dropped the warrior part, you’d be kind of right, if you were talking about someone crazed out on bath salts, right?

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Bottom’s Up…. Or You’re Drafted

Bottoms up- It’s a fairly common expression used to kick off a round of drinks, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. This one has its roots in England.

Okay, so, imagine you’re part of a group of 18th century English sailors called a press gang. Your job is to go ashore & persuade (also known as beating the ever-loving snot out of) young men from town to join the navy. You have a quota of men to recruit or face a beating from your superior officer, yourself.
Even so, beatings, as common as they are, are a last resort & to avoid the trouble having to beat the piss out of someone until they say, “Yes,” you’ll have to come up with a way to outsmart a room full of obliterated 20 year-olds into enlisting.

"Would you like to join the Navy?” “No, thanks. It’s not for me.” *Wooden stick to the face* “Would you like to join the Navy?” “Yes.”

“Would you like to join the Navy?”
“No, thanks. It’s not for me.”
*Wooden stick to the face*
“Would you like to join the Navy?”

Here’s your plan: Find a drunk man, & when he isn’t looking, drop a shilling coin into his stone beer mug. It’s alright; he won’t see it until he’s finished because the stone mug isn’t clear & by that time, you can claim to have paid for his beer in exchange his service. Boom. New sailor to fill that spot manning the 12 pounder, that’s been vacant since the old guy took a foot long cannon ball splinter to his face.

After a little while, the pubs started catching on & fixed this by putting glass bottoms to their mugs. They’d always remind customers to put their bottoms up & check to see if there was a coin. If there was, they could find out who put it there & kick them out. Although, I can only assume this would end in a giant bar brawl, with both you & the drunk guy being dragged out by the press gang anyway.

Seriously, you didn’t mess with those guys.

There you have it. Now you know. You’re welcome.

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