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The phrase 'Keep your nose to the grindstone' - meaning and origin.

The meaning and origin of the expression: Keep your nose to the grindstone

Keep your nose to the grindstone

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Keep your nose to the grindstone'?

To keep your nose to the grindstone is to apply yourself conscientiously to your work.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Keep your nose to the grindstone'?

There are two rival explanations as to the origin of this phrase. One is that it comes from the supposed habit of millers who checked that the stones used for grinding cereal weren't overheating, by putting their nose to the stone in order to smell any burning. The other is that it comes from the practice of knife grinders when sharpening blades to bend over the stone, or even to lie flat on their fronts, with their faces near the grindstone when holding the blades against the stone.

All the evidence is against the miller's tale. Firstly, the stones used by millers were commonly called millstones, not grindstones. The two terms were sometimes interchanged but the distinction between the two was made at least as early as 1400, when this line was printed in Turnament Totenham:

"Ther was gryndulstones in gravy, And mylstones in mawmany."

The Middle English language there is difficult to interpret but it certainly shows the grindstones and millstones as being distinct from each other. If the derivation was from milling we would expect the phrase to be 'nose to the millstone'.

A second point in favour of the tool sharpening derivation is that all the early citations refer to holding someone's nose to the grindstone as a form of punishment. This is more in keeping with the notion of the continuous hard labour implicit in being strapped to one's bench than it is to the occasional sniffing of ground flour by a miller. The image at the top of the page, which looks Victorian in date, shows a youngster being held with his nose to the grindstone, although that appears to be as a joke rather than as a punishment.

The phrase 'Keep your nose to the grindstone' - meaning and origin.Certainly where I live, in Sheffield, England, many of the preserved Georgian tool sharpening workshops have benches where grinders would sit hunched over grinding stones. They had to pay close attention to their work as a moment too long on the wheel could cause the steel to overheat and be ruined. They literally had their noses to the grindstone. It seems very likely that image is what was in the mind of whoever coined this phrase.

The first known citation is John Frith's A Mirrour or Glasse to know thyselfe, 1532:

"This Text holdeth their noses so hard to the grindstone, that it clean disfigureth their faces."

The phrase appears in print at various dates since the 16th century. It was well-enough known in rural USA in the early 20th century for this picture, which alludes to the 'holding someone's nose to the grindstone' version of the phrase, to have been staged as a joke (circa 1910).

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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