Dear Evan: What can you tell me about the phrase “on the nose”? I assume that it comes from the world of horse racing, and that it refers to gamblers putting a bet “on the horse’s nose,” since that is the first part of the horse to cross the finish line. But how did it come to mean “precisely” or “on time,” as in “We’ll meet at eight o’clock on the nose.” — Susan Davis, New York City.
Before we start, I must make yet another of those mildly humiliating admissions to which regular readers of this column have become accustomed. That’s right, in addition to never having owned a single share of stock in anything, not speaking a word of French, and being violently apathetic on the subject of sports, I have never bet on a horse in my life. Furthermore, I don’t plan to — just walking past the Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlors in New York City is the most powerful aversion therapy in the world for any prospective gambler. Dante missed out on a whole ring of torment by not living to see these filthy and depressing dumps — just imagine Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” with fluorescent lighting and you’ve got the picture.
All of which has nothing to do with “on the nose,” but that’s OK because I don’t think “on the nose” actually has anything to do with horse racing. The human nose appears in many slang phrases symbolizing something very close, intimate or obvious — think of “right under your nose,” “counting noses,” “nose to nose” or “poke your nose into.” The nose is the center of the human face, after all, so it’s not surprising that it should serve as “ground zero” for so many metaphors.
Several books on word and phrase origins, by the way, trace “on the nose” to the early days of radio broadcasting. The theory is that it came from the engineer in the studio control room placing a finger alongside his nose as a signal to the announcer that the program was running precisely on schedule. I think, however, that the engineer was, more than likely, simply pantomiming the phrase “on the nose,” which already existed.