This question gets into the subtle shades of meaning of the word clinch, in the context of sporting teams securing spots in the playoffs.

My past experience hearing this term on television, or reading in the newspaper, carries the connotation of "regardless of the outcome of (this or other teams') remaining games." The free dictionary seems to agree.

However, recent coverage (question written during the last week of the 2014 NFL season) has described several teams having the opportunity to "clinch" a wild-card spot with a win on Sunday, if some other team also loses, or similar scenarios, always using the word clinch. At this point, I would say that the team can earn, win, receive, capture, or any of a dozen other terms, but the time to be able to clinch has passed.

So, is my perception of the meaning of clinch flawed? Or, is there clear evidence that the meaning is changing as a result of popular usage (i.e. by sports tele-casters and writers)?

  • 1
    Just for clarity: do you mean that "clinch" should mean "guarantee, even though there are games remaining," but after the final week there will be no remaining (regular season) games, so we might say "secure" but not "clinch"? – Rusty Tuba Dec 24 '14 at 19:03
  • @Rusty Tuba: Yes, that is what I am asking. – cobaltduck Dec 24 '14 at 19:04
  • I see what you mean. It hadn't occurred to me before, and I would guess that they are using "clinch" as a synonym of "secure" (a word which does not necessarily imply that there remain meaningless regular season games). – Rusty Tuba Dec 24 '14 at 19:06
  • At what point has the "time to be able to clinch passed"? And what's wrong with, "The Chiefs can clinch with a win plus a Ravens loss and a Texans loss or tie" – do you not like the word "clinch" because the Chiefs "need help"? I think the usage is fine, and your perception is flawed. (In that context, it simply means, "If the Chiefs win, the Ravens lose, and the Texans tie, then the Chiefs have clinched a berth – no matter what else happens on Sunday.") – J.R. Dec 24 '14 at 19:06
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    In the context of your question, the definition your link points to, namely "To secure (a divisional championship, for instance) before the end of regular season play by having an insurmountable lead", is the only sense I am familiar with. An 'opportunity to clinch' is no opportunity at all if securing a spot still depends on the outcome of some other sports match. – Erik Kowal Dec 24 '14 at 19:07

Here is the entry for the transitive verb clinch in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2014):

clinch vb [prob.alter. of clench] vt (1542) 1 : CLENCH 3 ["to set or close tightly"] 2 a : to turn over or flatten the protruding pointed end of (a driven nail); also : to treat (as a a screw, bolt, or rivet) in a similar way b : to fasten in this way 3 a : to make final or irrefutable : SETTLE {that clinched the argument} b : to assure the winning of {scored a touchdown to clinch the game}

If you think of a team's season-long effort to earn a place in the league's postseason playoffs as contest to win such a spot, then the moment at which the team is assured of playing in the postseason is the moment at which it clinches the spot—and that can happen when the team wins the final game of the regular season, or when a combination of events play out in its favor (for example, it loses its final game, but so do the other three teams that were in contention for the spot, allowing it to back in to the playoffs). Indeed, if the league used a coin flip to determine which of two teams that were tied in the final regular-season standings should get a spot in the playoffs, you could say that the favorable coin flip clinched the lucky team's place in the playoffs.

It's true that a team that can get into the playoffs only if several other teams cooperate by losing can "assure the winning of" the playoff spot for itself in a rather odd way; it might be truer to say in that scenario that it can "be assured the winning of" the spot—which does stretch definition 3b slightly. But definition 3b of clinch isn't the only available meaning of the word. Definition 3a seems to permit the use of clinch to mean "settle or decide in one's favor, regardless of the means by which the settling occurs."

As for the argument that clinch means something like "ensures the desired outcome, regardless of what competitors do," that definition would seem to forbid using clinch in a situation where two teams tied for a final playoff spot are playing each other in the last game of the season—since in that case the team that wins makes the playoffs only because the other team loses. A similar notion is at work in this example from Russ Hodges, Baseball Complete (1952):

The gifted run permitted the White Sox to down the Giants 4-2 in the 1917 World Series clincher and stamped Heinie as a bit of a blunderer. Truth to tell, Heinie was absolutely blameless. His mates had left home plate as unprotected as a cat at a dogshow and poor Heinie could find nobody to throw the ball to. So he set out after Collins in futile flight.

Here, the clincher is the deciding game of the baseball World Series. The White Sox won it and the Giants lost it, but the clinching occurred at the moment that the World Series (and the 1917 baseball season as a whole) ended.


Definitions from the top dictionaries (in order found by google) most closely related to this topic,
to make certain the winning of (something) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clinch
to settle (a matter) decisively http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/clinch?s=t
to succeed in making an agreement certain, esp. after a long period of discussion http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/american-english/clinch
Sports to secure (a divisional championship for instance) before the end of regular season play by having an insurmountable lead http://www.thefreedictionary.com/clinch

Do your family and friends agree with you? If so, it may be a regional connotation. However, since three of the four top resulted dictionaries do not have a "before the end of regular season" requirement, I would say that in general it is not too late to clinch something unless someone else has already clinched it.

  • I think the first and third definitions listed above also imply "before the end of the regular season", as they indicate that clinch means to make certain the winning of something, but not to actually win it yet. The actual contest has not yet occurred or the agreement has not been made, though it is now certain to be made or won when the time comes. That does imply to me that the word should only be used before the beginning of the playoffs. Once the regular season ends, the playoffs have essentially begun, and there is nothing left to "clinch". You either have a berth or you don't. – Mark Thompson Apr 7 '15 at 6:44

The point is that "clinch" creates a 100% guarantee. In that regard, "clinch" is more accurate the closer to the end of the event, i.e. the point in time the game is determined. The only time to use the word clinch accurately would be after an event, because the results at that point are already known.

The reason clinch is used in "wild card" positions in games like football is that, even though there remain games to be played, the results are known through predetermined mathematical systems (in this case, by having unassailable victory leads).


Clinch means Clinch. in Sports in means guaranteed of a position

Win means you won. Everything has been completed

You don't Chinch the World Series, you win it.

You clinch a divisional title or a playoff spot when prior to the end of a season, your team is mathematically guaranteed not to lose that championship or play off spot.

A team WINS a Championship. they do not Clinch one.

Once a team WINS a championship....they can CLENCH on to that title and Trophy.

The time for clinching is prior to the final outcome when mathematically the team is guaranteed a position or Guaranteed a Title, regardless of any other outcome of all other games played.

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