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I was rather fascinated by the idiom put on a clinic (meaning to perform extremely well) when I heard it used today for what I'm sure was the first time, because it sounded so cool. More than that, I was intrigued by its origin, and it's certainly not too easy to trace its roots without laboring a bit. Which I did: consulted a handful of online dictionaries. Sadly, to no avail. I'm afraid (and a bit embarrassed to say) that I've virtually exhausted my resources. I do possess offline dictionaries and a title on word etymologies as well, but I know they won't be of much service in this regard.

Could anyone please shed some light on the origin of this beautiful idiom?

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    Can you give an example of where this was used (plus a link to the source)? I've never heard this before and so I need some context of where it was used.
    – Mitch
    Dec 24, 2021 at 15:53
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    You can at least type out the dialog around the use of the idiom. Or rather give us the chance to judge if it is an idiom or if it is just a one-off.
    – Mitch
    Dec 24, 2021 at 16:38
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    @Mitch - M-W defines the expression as an idiom.
    – user 66974
    Dec 24, 2021 at 16:46
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    I’ve always understood it to mean, “He was so far above everyone else, it was like he was their instructor demonstrating how to do it right.” It’s similar to saying he gave them a lesson or ran a camp for them.
    – Davislor
    Dec 25, 2021 at 2:44
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    This is an EXTREMELY common expression in sports, to the point where its annoying. OP doesn't need to prove its not one-off.
    – Davor
    Dec 25, 2021 at 19:25

5 Answers 5

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The original question asked about the idiom put on a clinic to mean "to perform exceptionally well." While the term originated with medical clinics and was transferred, as OED notes, to non-medical sessions "for instruction in or the study of a particular subject", the idiomatic use of demonstrating how to do something well through performance, rather than through formal instruction, came later.

It has been used extensively in sports. The earliest I've found is a 1936 article about a pitcher with the Little Rock Travelers of the minor league Southern Association in a game against the Birmingham Barons:

Lee Rogers is one of the best left-handed curve ball pitchers in the league. He stepped out Monday with everything under control and proceeded to put on a pitching clinic. -- Zipp Newman, Birmingham News, April 29, 1936, p18

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  • It's interesting to note that not very many dictionaries list this meaning of clinical: US, informal : done or performed with excellence and precision : EXEMPLARY In the meantime Bryant … continued his clinical shooting, which has allowed him to more than double his scoring average … — Alexander Wolff Could there be any connection between this usage of clinical and the idiom?
    – user405662
    Dec 24, 2021 at 13:53
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    @user405662: Yes, but more of an indirect connection. The use of "clinical" in that sense always made me think of the sterility and precision of a medical clinic (treatment centre, especially surgical... which is a synonym of clinical in the context you're talking about.) "Clinical precision" or "clinical shooting" doesn't make me think of a sports group-teaching session, while "put on a clinic" most certainly does. (I was already familiar with both usages, including the literal meaning of e.g. "throwing clinic" for Ultimate [frisbee] players, and the idiomatic meaning.) Dec 25, 2021 at 6:40
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    This makes sense to me. Sometimes we'll say that someone "showed everyone how to do" something, and this sounds similar to instructing in a clinic.
    – Barmar
    Dec 25, 2021 at 13:16
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    I've found an example of the term in a metaphoric sense from nine years earlier than the baseball sense. This one if from politics. It refers to a cleaning up of corruption in Indianapolis. "So Indiana feels that it is putting on a clinic for the rest of the country, letting it in on the surgical operation that has been necessary to eliminate the state's political ills." -- Owen L. Scott, "Indianapolis Is Hopeful Today," Yonkers Statesman, November 9, 1927, p19. (Syndicated article also appeared elsehwere)
    – Ken Liss
    Dec 25, 2021 at 13:57
  • Thanks a lot @Ken Liss and others. Your comments supplement the answer nicely.
    – user405662
    Dec 25, 2021 at 14:47
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I'd call it a metaphor. Like a metaphor, anyone hearing it can figure out the intent and think it seems clever, and anyone who gets the idea can make up a new version.

The overall metaphor is that it looks like we're watching an excellent instructor teaching in a classroom setting. I suppose that's the origin, but not in the sense of how an idiom has one particular place where the phrase made sense. Older variants are the pitcher might show us how it's done, or school us in how to strike someone out, or demonstrated his pitching skill (as in -- it looked as if he was giving a demonstration, instead of playing in a real game), or put on a fine display of pitching skill. Put on a clinic is just more in the same vein. We could go on and invent "she gave us a master class in pitching".

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  • I like that analysis although I'm sure there's a history behind the idiom.
    – user405662
    Dec 24, 2021 at 15:59
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    @user405662 I'm saying it's NOT an idiom. An idiom is so unnatural that it has to have a specific origin for where it made sense. A metaphor like this is so obvious that many people would have independently said it without any deep reason, just that clinic and class are similar words. Dec 26, 2021 at 5:14
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It stems from a shift of meaning and emphasis

Etymonline

clinic (n.) 1620s, "bedridden person, one confined to his bed by sickness," from French clinique (17c.), from Latin clinicus "physician that visits patients in their beds," from Greek klinike (techne) "(practice) at the sickbed," from klinikos "of the bed," from kline "bed, couch, that on which one lies," from suffixed form of PIE root *klei- "to lean."

Also "one who defers baptism until the death-bed" (1660s). Sense of "private hospital" is from 1884, from German Klinik in this sense, itself from French clinique, via the notion of "bedside medical education, examination of a patient by an instructor in the presence of students."

The modern sense thus reverses the classical one, in which the "clinic" came to the patient. General sense of "conference for group instruction in something" is from 1919.

The idea of group instruction was extended from medicine to other areas:

Merriam Webster

Clinic:

a group meeting devoted to the analysis and solution of concrete problems or to the acquiring of specific skills or knowledge

The person offering or providing such a clinic would necessarily by knowledgeable and authoritative, so would become respected. Putting on a clinic became a symbol of such success.

The idiom putting on … occurs elsewhere as in putting on a show, putting on airs

Cambridge

Put on:

to do an activity, esp. one that others can watch:

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    The sense and usage you suggest look quite plausible. It would be interesting to know where and when this usage started.
    – user 66974
    Dec 24, 2021 at 12:41
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clinic (n.)

Transferred—An institution, class, conference, etc., for instruction in or the study of a particular subject; a seminar. Chiefly U.S.

1919 British Manufacturer Nov. 30/2 In order to solve this difficult problem in economic diagnosis, we need a clinic just as the doctor does.

OED, with earliest citation (see Anton's answer for more on the etymology).


Regular meetings are held the third Thursday of each month, usually at one of the offices or preceded by a dinner at one of the hotels. A committee has been appointed to put on a clinic about March first. Bulletin of the Colorado State Dental Association, Volumes 1-2 (Snippet View. The date on the Google search-results page (not always reliable) is 1917, so this example may be from 1917 or 1918)

A number of the earliest examples in Google Books for clinics being "put on" are from state dental associations.

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For me, as a non-native English speaker and German medical and fond of Basketball, I noticed in former times (when Dirk Nowitzki scored really well in the NBA and hit almost all of his shots) and until today, that this special idiom is being used when sportsmen are performing very well. In my ears the idiom sounds like "do it with the precision of a surgeon", and that's how I understand it.

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