"Clip" commonly refers to a device for holding things together. One dictionary says it's "of unknown origin, first occurring in the 15th century." In such phrases as "giving him a clip around the ear", where does the word come from?

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    Also "giving him a clip around the ear": do you mean in the sense of a haircut, or of a bruise?
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 2:30
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    @MετάEd: Fairly obviously OP means a sharp smack about the head. I don't see he needs to explain that any more clearly - it's a standard idiomatic expression. Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 2:32
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    @FumbleFingers Maybe regional then. I've run into clipping of course as an (American) football term, and boxing someone on the ear, but never that particular phrase that you consider idiomatic. Hence my question.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 2:38
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    @Robert: OED says it's an extension from original Norse klippa, klippen - "to make a sharp sound" (hence horses go clippety-clop, I suppose). That sense transferred to clip=cut from the sound of shears/scissors. It also led to speed (you can move at a fair clip), and to the "crack" of slapping someone round the head, among other senses. Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 2:40
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    @MετάEd: We learn something new every day! You've just learnt what it means, and I've just learnt that it's mainly a British usage. That link is to Google Books British Corpus; if you switch it to American, the prevalence % drops to a tenth of what it was. Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 2:45

4 Answers 4


Clip has been used as a noun since 1830 to mean, in the OED’s definition, ‘a smart blow, stroke’. This definition is given under the entry for clip with the core sense of a cut, originally in the context of sheep-shearing. It is perhaps a relatively short step from applying an instrument to the covering of an animal’s skin in order to remove it to applying a stick or the hand to the body of a human in order to hurt it.


The OED has clip as a colloquial, transitive verb meaning "To hit smartly" since 1855 (this is sense 8 of clip v.2):

1855 ‘Q. K. P. Doesticks’ Doesticks, what he Says xii. 99, 97's engineer clipped one of 73's men with a trumpet.

1880 T. Q. Couch Gloss. Words E. Cornwall in Gloss. Cornwall 90 Klip, to strike or cuff. ‘I klipped 'en under the ear.’

Other senses under clip v.2 are to cut with scissors or shears (often to make tidy), to cut or snip a part away, to shear sheep, to figuratively cut something short, to cut words short or prounounce imperfectly, or to move wings rapidly.

These meanings aren't too far away from a clean, fast blow.

Etymologically, these senses of clip are from Middle English clipp-en, and probably from Old Norse klipp-a:

The Old Norse and Low German klippa , klippen , was probably identical with Low German klippen to make a sharp sound, cited under clip v.3, the application being transferred, as in clack , click , clank , clink , clap , from the sound to associated sharp actions; [other] senses and [another definition], show that the notion of cutting is not inseparable from the word. There may also have been onomatopoeic influence: in the utterance of clip, as of snip, there is a cut-short effect, which aptly suits the act.

  • Why is there a discrepancy between the (OED) dates in @BarrieEngland's answer and yours? Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 14:25
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    Mine are for the (later) verb, Barrie's are for the (earlier) noun. Verbing weirds language.
    – Hugo
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 14:33

Mediaeval Knights used their horse as get-a-away cars to get to and from the battle...their grooms ,usually young lads, were ordered to maintain these horses at readiness ..if these were not ready for pursuit or escape as the case may be then the grooms were punished severely by having an ear cut off or "clipped"..hence "a clip around the ear"

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    Interesting, ROBAT. Have you any evidence to support your claim? Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 11:41
  • Please, a reference! A link, something, anything that might backup this origin.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 11:50
  • Fatal Colours..Towton 1461 by George Goodwin Page 204 2nd para...footnote:Goodman The Wars Of The Roses:The Soldiers Experience p.138
    – ROBAT3011
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 11:52
  • Whereas, grooms did have their ears cut off, the passage does not indicate the origins of "clip round the ear". From the book - "With that potential purpose in mind, the role of the groom, who might be little more than a child, was extremely important. He was expected to remain on standby at his post. Any desertion was liable to be severely punished, for instance with the loss of an ear.[13] The phrase a clip around the ear denoted a lasting punishment in that period." The final sentence is humour, not an authoritative source.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 22:45
  • From the source, Goodman “The Wars Of The Roses”, that Page quotes in “Fatal Colours..Towton 1461” at [13] above: “Boys and pages, with foot archers, were liable to lose the right ear, if they cried ‘To horseback’ (perhaps precipitating unauthorised withdrawals from the camp or field).They were apparently subject to the general prescriptions in the ordinance.” There is no mention of “A clip round the ear."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 22:58

Here is an UrbanDictionary Link

A soft but firm strike with the hand delivered to the side of the head, characteristically by a parent to a child. The strike is designed not so much to hurt as to shock the offending minor. In a modern context, some might construe this as child abuse, although it is an accepted method of disciplining children provided restraint is shown.


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