Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Clean your clock, and a short take on the `Long War'

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Our side would welcome that debate," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Democrats, hinting at a floor fight over the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. "And frankly, we'll clean your clock."

The Wall Street Journal told Virginia Republicans that the way to "turn a red state blue" was to act like liberals: "Republicans in that ostensibly `red' Republican state got their clocks cleaned in November's elections after they refused to take a coherent stand on taxes."

Keith McFarland at Business Week recalled that US industries awakened to the need for quality production 20 years ago "primarily because America was getting its clock cleaned by the Japanese."

All three usages of this mysterious slang expression took place this year. Only four years ago, it was analyzed in this space as one of the sports pulverization terms, along with whomp, clobber, slaughter, thrash, trounce, all shunting aside the colorless defeat decisively. The earliest citation then was from 1959, suggesting it was derived from the early 20th-century "fix your clock," using the face of a timepiece to stand for the human face, as in the related insult, a face that would stop a clock.

Comes now this citation from the sports page of the Trenton Evening Times of July 28, 1908, about a couple of local baseball teams: "It took the Thistles just one inning to clean the clocks of the Times boys." That means that this mechanical metaphor has been kicking around for at least nearly a century, most often in sports lingo, now more in combative political language (and occasionally with a sexual overtone regarding being exhausted by one's partner, though I can offer no citation).

And it is being spread around the world: In an article about the portrayal of villains on Japanese television, Kate Elwood wrote three months ago in the Daily Yomiuri of Tokyo that an idealistic teacher named Yankumi "with a certain elan, cleans the clocks of assorted bad guys over many episodes ... way to go, Yankumi!"

Why does Old Slang stay with us long after the basis for the metaphor has staggered off into the mists of meaning? Perhaps alliteration helps give it linguistic longevity; clean your clock comes readily to the tongue, though it has no semantic relation to "wash your face." In the same way, so does drop a dime, as in David Van Biema's recent review in Time magazine of a Coptic Egyptian translation of a supposed 2nd century manuscript irreverently titled The Gospel of Judas. The reviewer writes about the title character famed for his betrayal, "Technically speaking, he did drop a dime on Jesus."

To drop a dime means "to insert a coin into a pay phone to dial the police and inform about a criminal conspiracy." The reviewer's ironic description of a betrayer, whistle-blower, informer, leaker or fink of two millenniums ago uses a communications device a couple of generations out of date. Does anybody under 40 -- who never uses a pay phone, which long ago lost its dial and stopped costing a dime -- get the reference? I presume some people do, because there it is in last week's Time about a dime-dropper who got his clock cleaned by history.


What do we call the war we're in? The Iraqi war? Gulf war II? The war on terror? Global struggle against terrorism? Clash of civilizations?

One unwritten law of war is that every war has to have a name. Pettifoggers in Congress decided to call the Korean War the Korean conflict, because it was a UN "police action" and never officially declared a war, but it's remembered as the Korean War. The 1914-1918 clash of groups of nations was described by an idealistic president Woodrow Wilson as "the war to end war," but events made sure that never stuck; it was initially labeled the Great War, which competed with the World War and did not gain its historical title of World War I, of course, until World War II (the comedian Sid Caesar, dressed in a doughboy's uniform and helmet in a classic skit set in late 1918, exulted anachronistically, "World War I is over!").

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