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The meaning and origin of the expression: Against the clock

Against the clock

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Against the clock'?

To be 'against the clock' is to be in competition with the passage of time; to be hurrying to accomplish something within a set time.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Against the clock'?

The phrase 'Against the clock' - meaning and origin.We might guess that the phrase 'against the clock' originated in a sporting context. That, and the fact that the phrase must be later than the invention of clocks in the 14th century, might give us a place to start in deducing the derivation.

As it turns out, neither of those possible leads go anywhere. The phrase originated in the 19th century and has nothing to do with sport.

The first example that I can find of the phrase in print (apart from citations describing people leaning against clocks) is in the Dublin newspaper The Freeman's Journal, February, 1857:

Irish members are free from the annoyance and physical exertion which would have been demanded of them had the division on Thursday night resulted differently, and a long series of adjournments and speaking against the clock, protracted sittings, and harassing divisions have been avoided.

It seems that example was a one-off and the phrase didn't get taken into the popular language. It wasn't until the 20th century that the expression began to be used more widely. The phrase re-emerged in the USA, as in this example from The New York Herald, December 1917:

All newspaper work is a struggle against the clock. The fourth year students may be thankful that they were not asked to write an obituary of, say, Earl Kitchener with only three quarters of an hour before going to press.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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