Why do we say "Keep your nose to the grindstone"?

Well-Known Expressions

Keep your nose to the grindstone

Meaning:

Apply yourself to your work with perseverance and diligence.

Background:

When sharpening blades, knife grinders tend to bend over the grindstone, or even like flat down with their faces near the grindstone in order to hold the blades against the stone.

The earliest known reference is in John Frith's A mirrour or glasse to know thyselfe in 1532: "This Text holdeth their noses so hard to the grindstone, that it clean disfigureth their faces."

Frith was an English Protestant priest who was arrested in 1532 on the orders of Thomas More (Lord Chancellor at the time) and burned at the stake a few months later for refusing to renounce his stated belief that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven.

The website phrases.org.uk notes, and dismisses, a rival explanation of this phrase as coming from the habit of millers to check that the stones used for grinding cereal weren't overheating by putting their nose to the stones in order to smell any burning. Not only is this an unlikely source as millers work millstones, not grindstones (in early English it seems that millstone and grindstone might have been interchangeable, but writings from as early as the 1400s indicate a distinction between them). Added to this, a miller occasionally sniffing the stone to check for burning does not illustrate the ethic of persistent hard work that the image of the knife grinder bent perpetually over his stone does.

Alphabetical list of expressions

Challenge yourself with BookBrowse Wordplays

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more


Today's Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Buses Are a Comin'
    Buses Are a Comin'
    by Charles Person, Richard Rooker
    Charles Person was just 18 years old in 1961 when he became the youngest of the first wave of '...
  • Book Jacket: Firekeeper's Daughter
    Firekeeper's Daughter
    by Angeline Boulley
    Angeline Boulley's young adult novel Firekeeper's Daughter follows 18-year-old Daunis — ...
  • Book Jacket: Winter in Sokcho
    Winter in Sokcho
    by Elisa Dusapin
    Our unnamed narrator is a young French-Korean woman who works at a guest house in Sokcho, a popular ...
  • Book Jacket: Second Place
    Second Place
    by Rachel Cusk
    Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy drew much of its substance from monologues and dialogues that swirled ...

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Girl in His Shadow
by Audrey Blake
The story of one woman who believed in scientific medicine before the world believed in her.

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Crossing the River
    by Carol Smith

    A powerful exploration of grief that combines memoir, reportage, and lessons in how to heal.

  • Book Jacket

    Ariadne
    by Jennifer Saint

    A mesmerizing debut novel about Ariadne, Princess of Crete for fans of Madeline Miller's Circe.

Who Said...

From the moment I picked your book up...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

A S I T closet

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.