meaning and origin of the phrase ‘like one o’clock’


Kent workers scale Big Ben

employees abseiling down St Stephen’s Tower in Westminster to carry out repairs on the clock face – from Kent workers scale Big Ben (13th August 2010) – Kent Online



The British phrase like one o’clock means vigorously, quickly, enthusiasticallyexcellently. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Snob’s Progress: A Romance of Common Life, by Albert Smith, published in The Era (London) of 26th April 1846:

“What are you about there?” asked the policeman.
“Ah! you may well ask,” said Mr. Higgs; “I’m sure I don’t know. Are you in the detective?”
“Now! are you going on?” inquired the policeman again.
“Of course I am,” said Mr. Higgs; “going on like one o’clock. Did you ever see one o’clock go? My eye! don’t it?—that’s all. But are you in the detective?”

The second-earliest instance is from A Voice from a Tub, by ‘Diogenes’, published in The Almanack of the Month: A Review of Everything and Everybody (London) of August 1846:

Several shops began to throw off their night clothes. The doors yawned as if half asleep, the windows opened their drowsy eyes, a wink at a time, and the body of each house seemed to stretch itself from head to foot, as one floor after another gave bustling indications of getting up. The Squares were the next to rise, and the clubs the last. By noon the entire town was stirring “like one o’clock.”

In The Era: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Literature and of General Interest (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of November 1901, ‘Sir Oracle’ gave two plausible explanations of like one o’clock in response to a reader’s query:

Sir Oracle: We are being told that the slang reported by Dickens is rapidly growing obsolete and unintelligible. Here, in proof, is a phrase which is entirely new to me. But, more curiously, it is not recorded in any of the many dictionaries of slang which I have taken the trouble to consult:
“Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling repair to the rag and bottle shop, where they find Krook still sleeping like one o’clock.”—“Bleak House,” chapter XX.¹
          M. S. N., Salem, N.J.
To do anything “like one o’clock,” means to do it satisfactorily, thoroughly or rapidly. It has been explained that the expression had its origin in the manufacturing districts of the north of England. The dinner hour for certain classes of work people is there, as elsewhere, twelve o’clock, but for the bulk of factory hands one o’clock is the time when they pour forth in thousands to their midday meal. A correspondent of the English Notes and Queries tells us that during the fifties he was often in the Oxford Road (one of the main thoroughfares out of Manchester), at one o’clock. “Numerous cotton factories then abutted on this street, and I shall never forget my first experience of the one o’clock thunder caused by the clatter on the pavement of the thousands of wooden clogs, worn by men and women alike, who swept all before them in their rush to their homes in Hulme.” Mrs. Gaskell, by the way, has described this curious one o’clock scene and noise in her novel, “North and South.”² Another explanation of the phrase is more general. The hour of one, it points out, is of all the hours that clocks strike, the shortest. Old clocks had a long interval of whirring or roaring between each stroke and to hear them strike twelve was a trial of patience. Hence the rapidity with which the performance was achieved at one o’clock became the synonym of speed in domestic affairs.

¹ This refers to the following passage from Bleak House (1853), by the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70), who explained the meaning of to sleep like one o’clock; Messrs Guppy and Jobling have sent Smallweed to ascertain if Mr. Krook is at home; Smallweed returns

with the intelligence that Mr. Krook is at home, and that he has seen him through the shop-door, sitting in his back premises, sleeping, “like one o’clock.”
Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling repair to the rag and bottle shop, where they find Krook still sleeping like one o’clock; that is to say, breathing stertorously* with his chin upon his breast and quite insensible to any external sounds, or even to gentle shaking.

(* stertorous: (of breathing) noisy and laboured)

² ‘Sir Oracle’ probably alludes to the following passage from North and South (Leipzig, 1855), by the English novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65); Margaret Hale, who is from Hampshire, in southern England, has settled with her parents in Milton-Northern, a fictional manufacturing town in northern England:

The side of the town on which Crampton lay was especially a thoroughfare for the factory people. In the back streets around them there were many mills, out of which poured streams of men and women two or three times a day. Until Margaret had learnt the times of their ingress and egress, she was very unfortunate in constantly falling in with them. They came rushing along, withhold, fearless faces, and loud laughs and jests, particularly aimed at all those who appeared to be above them in rank or station. The tones of their unrestrained voices, and their carelessness of all common rules of street politeness, frightened Margaret a little at first.

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