Nose to the grindstone
September 16, 2021
A parent looking at a child's poor report card might say, "You'd better keep your nose to the grindstone next semester and get those grades up!" Is this parent suggesting painful disfigurement will make the child smarter? No, the parent simply wants the child to focus more time, effort and attention on school studies. But how do the nose and grindstone enter in?
One theory relates to the milling process. In an earlier age, grains were transformed into flour by using two large millstones, one fixed and the other turning. Grains between them were ground into powder. If the millstone overheats, the grain gives off a burning smell. The miller then stops the process and allows the stones to cool down.
In order to detect the exact moment of the burning, the miller periodically bends over and sniffs the stones. In other words, conscientious millers kept their noses to the grindstone.
The other theory relates to the sharpening of knives and other blade implements. In this case, a single grindstone was kept wet, either by pouring water over it or by allowing the lower half to revolve through a trough of water. Here too, overheating could be a problem, though the danger was to the implement being sharpened rather than the grindstone. The length of time the blade was in contact with the grindstone was important. An overheated or over-sharpened blade paradoxically became dull. Thus the conscientious sharpener had to sit hunched over his bench to better see the blade, though that sometimes placed his nose a little too close for comfort. Some professional sharpeners actually performed their duties lying flat above the grindstone, again placing the nose in imminent danger.
The earliest written reference when the phrase was used as a metaphor comes from John Frith's 1532 treatise, "A mirror or glasse to know thyself." In the treatise Frith denounced bishops, abbots and other religious leaders who piled up riches for themselves while neglecting both the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. Citing a number of Biblical references to prove his point Frith ends with one from Ecclesiasticus (34:21) "The bread of the needy is the life of the poor, and he that defrauded him of it is a murderer."
Frith is so delighted with this ultimate proof that he fairly gloats, "This text holdeth their noses so hard to the grindstone, that it clean disfigureth their faces..."