nose to the grindstone

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William Hogarth's 1741 Enraged Musician, including a stooped grinder working his treadle
William Elmes's 1814 political cartoon "John Bull Bringing Bony's Nose to the Grindstone"


From the literal action of intensely working a grindstone, whether powered by a treadle or waterwheel. The expression initially implied punishment or abusive management, forcing the worker into intense work, and was used in the anonymous 1557 translation of Erasmus's Merry Dialogue as a hyperbolic punishment threatened for an abusive husband. It was later adapted to forcing oneself into similarly intense effort.


nose to the grindstone (plural noses to the grindstone or noses to grindstones)

  1. (idiomatic, obsolete) Used to form idioms meaning "to force someone to work hard or to focus intensely upon their work".
  2. (idiomatic) Used to form idioms meaning "to force oneself to work hard or to focus intensely upon one's work".
    • 1828, Lights & Shades of English Life, volume II, page 13:
      People whose heads are a little up in the world, have no occasion to keep their nose to the grindstone.
    • 1886 [1882], Henry James, The Point of View[1], London: Macmillan and Co.:
      I travelled energetically; I went everywhere and saw everything; took as many letters as possible, and made as many acquaintances. In short, I held my nose to the grindstone.
    • 2001 August 26, Garrison Keillor, “In Search of Lake Wobegon”, in The New York Times[2], →ISSN:
      Thirty years ago, I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented farmhouse south of Freeport, an area of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics proud of their redneck reputation.

Usage notes[edit]

Variously placed after the verbs keep, put, bring, have, hold, &c. or used as a substantive adjective.




nose to the grindstone (not comparable)

  1. (idiomatic) Hard at work.
    Nose to the grindstone, he was up all night.