Word of the Day



a set of springs inside a toy or other object that make it work when you turn a handle or key

Origin and usage

The word clockwork is a compound of ‘clock’ and ‘work’. The Late Middle English word ‘clock’ comes from Middle Low German and Middle Dutch ‘klocke’, which derives from the medieval Latin ‘clocca’, meaning ‘bell’. ‘Work’ comes from the Old English word ‘woerc’ of Germanic origin.


Clockwork generally refers to the inner workings of any machine that is wound up by a key and operates via a series of springs and cogs, but the word originally applied specifically to the inner workings of clocks. The first mechanical watches, which began to appear in the late 14th century, were powered by weights. Throughout the 1500s, portable clocks that were powered by clockwork mechanisms became popular across Europe thanks to the designs of the German locksmith Peter Henlein. Although these clocks were difficult to make and very fragile, they eventually influenced the designs of watchmakers around the world.

In the earliest versions of clockwork devices, a key was inserted in order to wind the internal mechanisms, and the use of wheels knitted together with cogs would be able to redirect the energy for other uses. Later, wind-up toys, music boxes, phonographs and even early mechanical calculators used clockwork mechanisms.

Clockwork devices are usually so perfectly made that if something is said to be running like clockwork, then it is considered to be so efficient and well-organized that it rarely needs any supervision.


“If the clockwork universe equated the human body with the mechanics of the clock, the digital universe now equates human consciousness with the processing of the computer.”

(Douglas Rushkoff)

“The queen of crime, Agatha Christie, was always more concerned about the clockwork cleverness of the plot, never the investigator.”

(Christopher Fowler)


machinery, mechanism

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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