On the clock

On the clock is an idiom that has been in use for about 100 years. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom on the clock, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

On the clock is an idiom that is used to mean that someone is working, that someone is currently performing duties for an employer. The expression on the clock is a reference to punching a time clock, which is an apparatus that keeps track of how long one is at work. The idiom on the clock may apply to working at a job that requires using a time clock or it may be applied to a job that does not require using a time clock. The phrase on the clock came into use in the early 1900s, when time clocks were installed in factories and other places of work. On the clock is sometimes used to mean that someone is running out of time.


Investigators dropped him as a suspect because of his alibi that he was on the clock at a Brunswick Winn-Dixie. (The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

They found him falsifying time cards, claiming he was on the clock while dining, commuting, and “meeting with women.” (New York Magazine)

A Circus Circus maintenance worker was arrested in July after a hotel guest accused him of raping her while he was on the clock, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has learned. (The Las Vegas Journal-Review)

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