About This Word

on the clock

[on th uh klok]

What does on the clock mean?

Working hard or hardly working? If you're on the clock, it should be the former.

To be on the clock is an idiom meaning "working" or "getting paid." It can also refer to the amount of time a taximeter has on the clock or the amount of time left in a sporting match.

Related words:

See how it's used

on the clock

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Where does on the clock come from?

On the clock means many, many things. The first relates to taxicabs. The taximeter was invented in 1891 by the Germans and put into English motorized hackney cabs in the early 1900s who called them clocks in the UK (usually meters in the US). If a cab is running, the mileage is on the clock—and you're paying for it.

Around the same time, clocks became commonplace in workplaces, especially factories, where workers would record, for the purposes of pay, when they arrive and leave work using a clock system (clocking in, clocking out). On the clock emerged as an expression meaning "working" and by extension, "getting paid," even when people aren't literally clocking in and out.

A third on the clock appears in sports, referring to the amount of time left in a part of the game (think shot clock). This sense surfaces in the mid-20th century. In the sport of golf, a player is put on the clock if they are taking too long to play, meaning the amount of time they get to make a shot gets restricted to keep up a reasonable game pace in that super exciting, fast-moving game of golf.

Who uses on the clock?

Outside its specific uses in taxis and sports, on the clock is used in casual speech for being at and responsible for work or getting compensated for work.

On the clock often has a begrudging connotation. Because work.

If you're not on the clock, then you're off the clock. So, stop looking up weird terms online and go out and do something!

For example

Ian Poulter was put on the clock twice, not penalized, but warned about his play, during his second round at the Masters.

Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest, April, 2018

Mattress company Amerisleep polled 1,001 Americans to gauge people's sleep habits while on the clock. More than half of respondents (51.8 percent) admitted to getting shut eye during business hours…

Sarah Berger, CNBC, May, 2018

If an NFL team punished Tim Tebow for his prayers "on the clock." Cool to punish him? Yes or no? Lots of conservatives on campus are punished and mobbed for their speech "on the clock." Is that fine? On the clock or off, I'd appreciate a bit more tolerance.

@DavidAFrench, May, 2018

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