“Clobber”

Correspondent David Griggs sent from England a note saying “you may be interested” in an example of the word “clobbered” in the New York Times. He was clearly implying it was a NOOB, but the word — meaning “to badly beat or defeat” — didn’t strike my ears as such. I checked the Times archive and found that “clobbered” or “clobber” have been used in the paper 1,720 times since 1990, frequently in a sports context. (“

Google Books’s newly beefed-up Ngram Viewer told an interesting story:

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 2.13.46 PM

That is, more use in the U.S. from the ’40s through about 1970, then a big spike in Britain over the next twenty years or so — which may account for David Griggs’ sense of it as a British word — followed by a period of slightly greater U.S. use.

But then David sent along a couple of sources asserting that “clobber” originated in British R.A.F. slang. The Online Etymology Dictionary  dates it to 1941, but doesn’t give any citations or sources. And a Merriam-Webster article says, “Pilots of the British air force during the 1940s were supposedly the first to throw around the punchy verb ‘clobber” (emphasis added): again, no evidence.

The OED does offer some, though from 1944 rather than 1941. Its first citation is from the R.A.F. magazine Gen, which had the line “Did anyone clobber any?” (The “any” apparently referred to flying bombs.)

The next two citations are from American sources, the first, reflecting a move in meaning from bombing to beating, from a 1949 reference to the University of Michigan football team: “The Wolverines clobbered their opponents 42 to 3.” And the second comes from Max Shulman’s 1951 novel The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: “‘Poor loser!’ they kept yelling as they clobbered me.”

And on my own I found a 1946 use by an American writer, Percy Knauth: “Bayreuth was clobbered badly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds some interesting bits to the story, starting with some lines from a poem in an 1894 issue of the Australian magazine Truth: “The larrikin / So full of sin, / has now no fear of getting clobbert.”

Then two citations that illuminate the word’s move to America.

From 1000 Destroyed, 1946, by Grover Cleveland Hall: “It didn’t appear the war was going to last long enough to clobber them.”

And from the 1948 novel Twelve O’Clock High: “‘Hit it?’ Savage asked. ‘Clobbered it, I think, sir.'”

Hall was a public relations officer for the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force — which was headquartered at the former R.A.F. base at Debden, England, starting in 1942. And Twelve O’Clock High was modeled on activities of the 306th Bomb Group, based at another R.A.F. facility, at Thurleigh.

As David Griggs said to me in an email, “Interesting just when Ngram says ‘clobber’ took off in the US: the late 1940s; all those American servicemen returning from WW2 Europe…” Exactly. The remarkable thing is just how fast it took hold in the U.S. For reasons I won’t speculate on, “clobber” and America were made for each other.

Update: The comments to this post and some additional investigation revealed several additional points of interest. First, the slogan of the comic book character The Thing has been, at least since 1964, what you see in the image below.

TheThing

Second, I should have pointed out a second, apparently unrelated British use of “clobber,” as a slang term for clothing (dating from the 1870s) or equipment or gear (1890s). They’re still in use today but have not penetrated America.

And finally, “the clobber passages” is a term that refers to the six or seven biblical verses that have traditionally been used to support the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

 

19 responses to ““Clobber”

  1. Nick L. Tipper

    Chambers Dictionary also lists ‘Clobber’ as a noun, referring to clothing, possessions or equipment.
    ‘Move your clobber out of my garage.’

    • And someone wearing some kind of outfit (work, military, etc) might be described as dressed in all their clobber.

  2. “Clobber” is also an expression used for clothing. And, as a Brit having lived in the. US for forty years without noticing it ever used, in any context, I imagine to be British-only usage.

  3. If any Americans start using it with the Cockney rhyming slang meaning in order to sound cool, that would be NOOB territory for sure!
    “clobber” <– "clobber and hit" <– hit/kit = kit

    • Chambers just gives origin uncertain for that meaning.

      Also, apparently, a paste used by shoemakers to hide cracks in the leather. And, as a verb “To overpaint a piece of porcelain and enamelled decoration”.

    • Bit of a stretch, that. I would suggest that is “mockney” through and through , me ol’ china.

  4. The comic-book character “The Thing”, one of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, has always had “it’s clobberin’ time!” as a catchphrase. It apparently dates from 1964, according to https://thecomicvault.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/5-iconic-catchphrases-from-marvel-comics/

  5. Michael McLennan

    “It’s clobberin’ time” was often said by The Thing from the Fantastic Four.

  6. When I saw the post headling I assumed it referred to “clobber” in the sense of clothing. Clobber in the violent sense is used in both British and American English. Of course, if you’re looking for the participle form “clobbered” you’re going to find the violent sense. It’s not inconceivable that someone might use “clobbered” to mean “dressed” but that would be a very unusual usage.

    I agree with the comments above that the purported rhyming slang origin of “clobber” in the sense of clothing looks like the phonus bolonus.

  7. elizabethmosier

    Fascinating!

  8. Nathaniel Boden

    A Google n-grams search for ‘clobber(GB)’ vs ‘clobber(US)’ tells a different story, basically ‘clobber’ is used more in the U.K. because of ‘clobber’ = ‘clothes’ definition but there are ups and downs on the graph because of multiple meanings and the fact that ‘clobber’ = ‘hit’ is the predominant meaning in both countries

  9. UK Operation Clobber 1945, US Operation Clobber 1952.

    Operation Clobber (British, 1945 Dec – 1946 Feb) https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C173143

    The British use of ‘clobber’ was deliberately misleading, even in what was by then peacetime. “Operation Clobber” had been preceded by Operations “Barleycorn” and “Coalscuttle” as names of plans to deal with the two million German soldiers who had surrendered into British custody at the end of the war: https://howitreallywas.typepad.com/how_it_really_was/2009/09/operation-unthinkable.html

    Operation Clobber (US, April 1952)

    The US use of ‘clobber’ for this Korean War operation was literal; the US Marines planned to clobber the Commies, to bombard them:
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yYZaEsg3dGMC&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=%E2%80%9COperation+Clobber%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=1mFuDB7zhq&sig=ACfU3U1yB7dSRxtVvvg4h-Y1gIjxsi9w6A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjA8onFtuXqAhXHUxUIHaG3C1UQ6AEwCnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9COperation%20Clobber%E2%80%9D&f=false

  10. Yep. Also in England, esp. north, you’d hear ‘I’ll go get me clobber’ i.e., me stuff/items.

  11. Cabe del Tufo

    When a piece of Georgian silver was covered in fancy decoration by the Victorians it is said by the antique trade to have been clobbered,

  12. And just for laughs. A long time ago I used to write code in language called MUMPS, specifically a version called DSM-11, and one of the nastier error codes was which meant the partition (holding your code & data) had been, well I think you can probably guess the verb. 🙂

  13. Oh … fiddlesticks! The error code text was CLOBR but it was surrounded by chevrons. This was a time before the web and the proliferation of markup languages and software that didn’t blindly treat every bit of text surrounded by chevrons as a mark-up tag. Wanders off muttering oaths and shaking his walking stick at everyone.

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