On the Clock – Idiom, Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Want to add some flavor and nuance to your writing or everyday conversations? Idioms will do the job! I love using idioms and metaphors in my writing. Just take “on the clock,” for instance. Where did the expression come from, and why do we say it? I’ll break down all the info for you right here.

On the Clock Meaning

On the Clock Idiom Origin Meaning

Basically, when you’re “on the clock,” it means you’re working or being paid for your time and labor. It’s an expression we commonly use in the context of hourly employment, where you have to check in and out at certain times and get paid for the hours you’ve put in.

On-the-Clock: Should It Be Hyphenated?

That’s a great question! I know a lot of phrases and terms like this usually get hyphenated, but in this case, it depends. You can use it with and without a hyphen, but only for certain contexts. If you’re saying the phrase as a stand-alone statement, it doesn’t need to be hyphenated.

  • You’re an employee who is on the clock.

But if you’re using it as an adjective that comes before a noun, then yes—hyphen all the way.

  • I’m an on-the-clock employee.

Origin of On the Clock

This is such an interesting origin story and another one that comes from somewhat literal roots. No, there wasn’t someone who literally sat on a clock and birthed the saying, but it does come from actual clocks. The ones on a taximeter, to be exact.

Taximeters were invented in Germany during the 1800s and were incorporated into taxicabs in the early 1900s. When the taximeter was running the clock, you were paying for the mileage. It didn’t take long for taximeters to pop up in the workforce, in places like factories and such. When you arrived at work, you’d “clock in” and get paid until you “clocked out.”

What Does Off the Clock Mean?

When someone says “off the clock,” they mean the opposite of “on the clock.” When you’re off the clock, you’re not actively working or being paid for your time. This other common phrase is mostly used to describe breaks and lunch hours or periods of time when an employee isn’t required to be working, even if they are still physically present at work.

On the Clock Examples in a Sentence

On the Clock Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • The newbie manager had to remind her employees not to take personal calls while they were on the clock.
  • He’d been on the clock for ten hours straight and was looking forward to going home and relaxing when his boss asked him to stay late.
  • Karen figured it was worth it to finish her paperwork off the clock to avoid distractions from coworkers.
  • The construction crew outside my home was on the clock from 7 am to 5 pm, with a one-hour lunch break in between.
  • As an on-the-clock employee for the post office, Mike was entitled to certain benefits and protections under Canadian labor laws.

The Clock Is Ticking

As with any idiom or metaphor, it really helps to understand the roots and deeper meanings behind them. This knowledge will broaden your vocabulary and make you sound even smarter! Be sure to check out my other grammar guides on idioms and phrases like this to stock your word arsenal.

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: