On the nose

I blogged earlier this year about some differences I have been running into between my native Australian English and that of the locals here in the UK. Well it’s happened again.
I was taking part in a conference abstract selection panel recently with two English and one other Australian academic when one of our English colleagues offered the opinion that a particular abstract was “on the nose”.
“But I thought you liked it when we did a quick run through earlier” said the other Australian.
“I do” responded the Brit, “that’s what I just said, it’s on the nose, exactly on the topic of the conference!”
My interpretation, and that of the other Australian, was that “on the nose” means “it stinks, it’s bad” and should be rejected.


A check of a sample of about half a dozen other Brits and Australians shows that the two opposite interpretations align perfectly with the two dialects: “on the nose” is good in British English and bad in Australian English. This is supported by a quick non-scientific Google search: The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald here and here and Darren Reed’s blog for example are Australia-based and all use the idiom in a negative sense.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary gives the following entry:

on the nose
1 informal, chiefly N. Amer. precisely.
2 informal (of betting) on a horse to win (as opposed to being placed).

The on-line Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary doesn’t mention the phrase, however its sibling the Cambridge Dictionary of American English does give it but with just the one meaning: “If a statement or number is on the nose, it is exactly correct or the exact amount: He weighs 174 pounds on the nose.” So, American English usage seems to coincide with British, as further evidenced by the definition given in The Free Dictionary. There was even a section of the American TV gameshow The Price is Right called “On the Nose” according to Wikipedia. Hard to imagine that on Channel 7 or 9 in Australia.
Now, the Australian English dictionary, The Macquarie Dictionary online, gives a useful set of senses:

On the nose, Colloquial
a. (in betting on horseraces) relating to a bet on a horse to win, rather
than for a place: I’ll put $10 on Black Knight — on the nose.
b. smelly; objectionable; decayed; stinking (especially of rotten organic matter, as food).
c. unpleasant; distasteful.
d. US exactly.

So, sense c. is a metaphorical extension of sense b., and as far as the Macquarie is concerned, the metaphorical extension of sense a. to sense d. has only happened in the US. Yet, I have heard it used here in London so did the Brits get it from the Americans?
Fortunately we got the conference abstract selection sorted but I sometimes wonder how we do manage to understand each other.
PS. Thanks to our eagle-eyed editor Jane Simpson for the Macquarie Dictionary information.

1 thought on “On the nose”

  1. Working just around the corner from Peter at UCL, I’m based in a research centre with British, American and Canadian colleagues, so this kind of misunderstanding regularly crops up. And not just in English, also in signed language, as we have deaf and hearing staff here who use British Sign Language (BSL), the related variety Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and American Sign Language (ASL). We recently discovered that the sign for SHIT in Auslan (but used only as an interjection, not as a verb to refer to the bodily action or its nouny results) means BROWN in some varieties of BSL. How’s that for a nice bit of semantic shift? 🙂

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