Nose to the grindstone: hard at work on folk etymology

Not too long along, I asked my Twitter followers to hit me up with common expressions, idioms and colloquialisms that mention a part of the body. Many weighed in, and I thought it a good idea to put my nose to the grindstone to uncover where many of these turns of phrase originate.

Grist for the mill or sharpening one’s skills?

There are two possible explanations when it comes to the origin of “nose to the grindstone”, although one seems to carry more favour among etymologists. The preferred explanation is that it comes from the practice of knife grinders, when sharpening blades, to bend over the stone. It’s reported that some even lay flat on their fronts, with their faces near the grindstone. Such a posture would allow them to hold the blades against the stone. The other explanation is that it comes from the habit of millers, who checked that stones used in the grinding of cereal were not overheating. They did this by putting their nose to the stone to smell for burning. As much as all evidence appears to be against the miller’s tale, all is grist for the mill, meaning that all can be made useful. I’ll therefore expound the two rival explanations.

While some readers may well be acquainted with “The Miller’s Tale”, which serves as the general prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories written between 1387 and 1400, the distinction between the words millstone and grindstone was made as early 1400, with this line in Turnament Totenham, a poem written in Middle English:

Ther was gryndulstones in gravy, And mylstones in mawmany.

Middle English is undoubtedly difficult to interpret, and it’s likely gryndulstones and mylstones were used interchangeably. However, this line, among the 231 in the humorous poem quoted above, clearly distinguishes between millstones and grindstones. Surely, if the derivation were from milling, the expression we know today would be “nose to the millstone”.

Further evidence in support of the tool sharpening derivation is that early citations refer to holding one’s nose to the grindstone as a form of punishment. During the sixteenth century, users lay on, and were often strapped to, a plank above the grindstone.

The Scots Holding Their Young King’s Nose To the Grindstone.
A satirical view of the Scots imposing conditions on Charles in return for supporting his claims to the Scottish and English crowns, from a contemporary (circa 1650) English pamphlet.

Consider the words of the English Protestant priest John Frith, who was arrested in 1532 on the orders of Thomas More, Lord Chancellor at that time. The charge? Frith refused to renounce his stated belief that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven. Frith’s 1532 A Mirrour or Glasse to Know Thyselfe is the earliest known reference to a grindstone:

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

The phrase “nose to the grindstone” has appeared in print at various dates since the time of More and Frith. In fact, it was known in the early twentieth century in parts of the rural United States for this photo by Frank Sadorus, from A Family Farm Album: Frank Sadorus’ Photographs.

Nose to the Grindstone
Elmer, GWB, and Frank holding Warren’s nose to the grindstone.
Collection of the Illinois State Museum
ISM Accession #: 1987.001.517

Whichever explanation you prefer, I need to put my shoulder to the wheel to get the job of exploring this etymology done. In the meantime, why not put your nose to the grindstone and listen to this track by Tyler Childers.

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