When and how did "clean your clock" become a euphemism for violence?

“He is going to clean your clock!”
How in the world did this phrase come into being?

I suspect because clocks have faces.

Word-Detective tends to agree

To begin at the beginning, “clock” has been slang for the human face since the mid-nineteenth century, based on its supposed resemblance to the face of a clock. “Clock” as a verb has also been slang for “to punch in the face or strike violently” since the early 20th century, again based on the clock-face metaphor.

Elsewhere in the world of fisticuffs, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, “clean” has been slang for “vanquish” since the early 19th century. The Random House dictionary also lists “fix someone’s clock” as a slang term for “to finish someone,” first attributed to the writer O. Henry in 1908. Curiously, the first citation for the whole phrase “clean someone’s clock” comes only in 1959, but we can assume it had been around for awhile before that.

Even with all this evidence tying faces and punches together, I must say that there is another possible source for “clean someone’s clock.” In railroad slang, an engineer who applies the train’s air brakes in an emergency is said to “clean the clock” or “wipe the gauge” as the speedometer needle drops to zero. It seems logical that such a graphic metaphor would be the perfect way to describe stopping an opponent in his tracks, and even if this is not the source of the phrase, it may have contributed to its popularization."

Origin of Clean Your Clock
*This expression originated during the 1900s. It is possibly related to the idea that a clock has a face, and cleaning someone’s clock often implies punching someone in the face.

The word clean also had a slang definition meaning to defeat or beat since the 1800s.*

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 …

Another concurring cite from a recent episode of the language podcast: “A Way with Words”:


They say that the use of clock describing a human face was in use in the late 1800’s and the use of clock as a verb to describe hitting someone in the face was in use in the 1920’s, but they don’t provide a direct cite in the audio portion.