Never mind, I’ll go check the sundial.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been having an ongoing debate with a close friend about the meaning of the idiom “like clockwork,” as in “She arrives everyday at noon, like clockwork.” Somewhere, a while back, I remember reading that the original intention of this expression is more closely related to “like rocket science.”  This had to do with the incredible complexity and machinery skill that it took to build a clock long ago. I have been looking around online and I only see the modern usage of “with regularity, or on schedule.” Of course, this annoys me since it seems as if this definition is copied and pasted around with almost universal agreement (a site search here also uses the saying to mean “regularity” versus “an admiration of complexity”). Does this saying have its roots where I believe it is, or has the modern usage always been the same as the original usage? — Termite.

That’s a fascinating question. Say, given that you’re clock-aware, perhaps you could clear up a question of current fashion for me. I have been told, by persons in the know, that it is now considered very uncool to wear a wristwatch. Apparently I’m supposed to rely on my cell phone to tell me the time. This poses a problem for me, as I do not own, and have no desire to buy, a cell phone. I have an old-fashioned hard-wired telephone I never, ever answer, but I assume it works because it rings all day long. Anyway, what number do I call for the time?

Onward. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “clockwork” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century meaning simply “the mechanism or works of a clock.”  Interestingly, the initial meaning of “clock”(which had developed from Celtic roots) in Old English was “bell.” In the 14th century it came to mean “clock with bells,” and eventually the need for bells was waived in the definition, and “clock” meant simply a timepiece.

“Clockwork” went on to acquire the meaning of “a mechanism similar to a clock,” and, by the late 17th century, became a metaphor for something that worked with unvarying regularity (“Their Religion was a kind of clock-work … moving in a certain order, but without life or sense,” 1679). This “My nephew shows up on payday like clockwork” sense is the most common current usage.

I think the usage of “clockwork” meaning “complex product of remarkable skill” you’re seeking is actually an extension of the “mechanism similar to a clock” sense, especially when applied to an article where such skill and complexity might not be expected. If I say, for instance, that an antique mechanical toy dog, upon examination, proved to be powered by a tiny spring mechanism of “clockwork” complexity, it would be a tribute to the builder’s remarkable skill. A search of Google for the phrase “clockwork complexity” produces more than 1,600 examples of the phrase (“Suddenly, as if cooling down after vigorous exercise, they flawlessly execute a circular court dance of arcane, clockwork complexity,” Dance Magazine), albeit not always used as a compliment (“This music — whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear….”).

Incidentally, this “complex and clever mechanism” sense is also found in the title of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. The novel’s protagonist, Alex, undergoes intense aversion therapy to eliminate his appetite for extreme violence, and emerges devoid of free will and the ability to make moral choices, as useless and strange as an orange that has had its innards replaced with a clockwork mechanism.

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