Idioms: “Keep your nose to the grindstone”

“Keep your nose to the grindstone”

By Kaitlin Strohschein

Stones are foundational to American society: figuratively and literally. We drive on them, place them in jewelry, and eat them. However, we do not commonly apply our noses to them. “The grindstone” is an especially unnatural and painful rock to which one might put one’s nose.

Nose to the grindstone demonstrationThe idiom, “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” currently means, “Work purposefully. However, when the phrase was coined, it implied working in excessively harsh or abusive conditions. When Charles Dickens used the phrase in Our Mutual Friend, he painted a picture of a bloody nose held to a spinning, rock wheel: “No, it was not to be borne. And for that, too, his nose shall be put to the grindstone.”

When putting one’s nose to the grindstone, one can expect a pain comparable to scraping one’s knee. Knee scraping is painful. Nose scraping is intrinsically more so. Putting one’s nose to the grindstone originally implied a bloody, experience that hurt quite a bit.