I let you believe that I am one of the nation's top geneticists, when actually I am a moderately successful scientist who is now coasting on past research, doing the odd bit of examining or consultancy. I haven't been at the coalface for years.
From the novel, Apple Tree Yard. By Louise Doughty

The Free Dictionary defines the British and Australian idiom at the coalface as: someone who is at the coalface is doing the work involved in a job, not talking about it, planning it, or controlling it.

The Phrase Finder explains

it is a way of saying that the person is 'in touch' and appreciates the actualities of the business rather than being a 'bean-counter' (accountant) a 'paper pusher' (administrator) or a 'fat-cat' (overpaid manager).

obviously the original 'coal-face' is a mining term to describe an underground worker that actually cuts the coal from the rock - but the sense of direct involvement with the core of the business is the important element, rather than it being dangerous or dirty.

Considering today's high-technology age, I think it sounds old-fashioned and outdated. Is there a more modern equivalent?


From the comments it seems that many American English speakers are unfamiliar with the British idiom. Which AmEng expression or idiom could replace "at the coalface" in the passage quoted above?

  • 2
    Not quite the question you're asking but possibly "I haven't looked down a microscope" might suit the sentence better.
    – Richard
    Feb 4, 2015 at 20:59
  • 4
    Maybe it's a reflection on my age, but I've never heard "at the coalface" in AmEng. Honestly, I assumed that it was something racist from the title (that's American PCness for ya).
    – Nick2253
    Feb 5, 2015 at 0:24
  • 5
    getting my hands dirty ...?
    – Dan
    Feb 5, 2015 at 0:56
  • 3
    I, also am unfamiliar with this expression - never heard it used in AmE.
    – user98990
    Feb 5, 2015 at 6:29
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA - no surprise that a good (tech related) answer is hard to come by. Nowadays we still use idioms whose roots are to be traced in centuries-old trades, jobs, customs which often no longer exist. In a tech-dominated world were more and more people are addicted to digital devices, idioms related to technology are still quite rare compared to the long-established ones. Language moves much slower than technology and that is probably a point you want to make with your question.
    – user66974
    Feb 5, 2015 at 19:32

9 Answers 9


Perhaps in the trenches. In the context of medicine (but it can be applied to any field that has active practitioners as well as academics and commentators) it has been defined as

A popular phrase derived from trench warfare of World War I, referring to the active practice of medicine—in the 'real' world—as opposed to the less practical philosophies of the 'academic' world

Segen's Medical Dictionary

But given you request for a more modern idiom, this may be a bit esoteric (and perhaps not understood by generations unfamiliar with World War I).

  • +1 Very good - I didn't realize that's where the expression came from.
    – user98990
    Feb 5, 2015 at 6:26
  • 1
    I don’t know if I, at 32, would qualify as being from a generation unfamiliar with World War I, but I’ve always associated in the trenches with semi-old-fashioned warfare, when fights were actually fought at relatively close hand, from actual trenches. Esotericity apart, the main problem with this in relation to this particular question is that such warfare doesn’t seem any less outdated or old-fashioned than miners working in coal mines—quite the opposite. Feb 5, 2015 at 18:01
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet My grandfather worked at the coalface and fought in the trenches. While I am more than double your age, my sons and grandchildren will still hear about those toiling in the mines and dying on vicious battlefields. Whether those idioms continue remains to be seen. This ngram suggests that, while usage peaked in the 1920s, it has fairly constant usage over the past 80 years.
    – bib
    Feb 5, 2015 at 19:09
  • 1
    The phrases in the trenches and also at the front or on the front-lines (suggested below by @Richard) are all military terms meaning to be in the heart of combat. I believe (but am not sure) that the phrase "in the zone" also originates from the same meaning ("in the combat zone").
    – O.M.Y.
    Feb 5, 2015 at 20:23
  • 1
    In the trenches might not be more up-to-date than at the coalface but it does answer the question of what idiom is commonly used in America. Feb 6, 2015 at 18:29

You've got a range of choices;

  • I haven't been on the front-lines

  • I haven't been hands on

  • I haven't been involved with the nuts and bolts

  • I haven't been involved with the nitty-gritty

  • I haven't been involved with the day-to-day operations (or even just "the day-to-day").

That said, 'at the coal-face' would be perfectly acceptable and explicable to most English speakers.

Wiktionary offers some additional alternatives.

  • You might also want to consider something more ironic such as "I haven't slaved away at a microscope for years" or even "I haven't been doing any gruntwork/scutwork" if you don't care about disparaging the lower level staff.
    – Richard
    Feb 4, 2015 at 20:57
  • My first thought was also "hands-on"
    – Joffan
    Feb 4, 2015 at 21:43

I'd go with this:

I haven't got/gotten my hands dirty in years.

  • 1
    In the medical profession, this would be heavily frowned upon :-)
    – Richard
    Feb 5, 2015 at 21:00
  • @Richard Hahaha. What would an ex surgeon say then? "I haven't got my hands blood-stained in years"? Feb 5, 2015 at 21:42
  • For a surgeon? "I haven't been up to my elbows in blood for a while", perhaps?
    – Richard
    Feb 5, 2015 at 21:47

My great-grandparents were of mining stock, but fortunately I don't have to work underground. I'm a software developer and often speak about 'working at the code-face'.

  • 5
    +1 just because this is a brilliant pun, even if it’s not in common use (or possibly even recognisable by most people). Feb 5, 2015 at 18:02
  • The code-face is a new one for me, but I consistently mis-hear the song "Working in the Coal Mine" as "...in the Code Mine". Feb 6, 2015 at 13:28

A software development specific example would be:

I haven't cut code in years.

  • This is closer to what I was hoping for, could one use this phrase if their profession was not a programmer?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 5, 2015 at 7:10
  • I never heard it in common speech, though "Cutting code" is precisely an IT slang term for "writing code". The term has been around for at least 50 years." forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2042574&langid=14
    – user66974
    Feb 5, 2015 at 7:45
  • @Josh61 It doesn't really matter to me how "old" the expression is, as long as it sounds modern and closer to 21st century than 19th or early 20th century.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 5, 2015 at 8:24
  • I was not suggesting it is old, but that it has been around for a while. Not enough to entrer common speech IMO :)
    – user66974
    Feb 5, 2015 at 8:27
  • Anecdotal: Cutting code probably refers to a time from either punch card (where you could cut out the holes to produce code) or from paper tape (where you could cut out sections of programs)
    – SeanC
    Feb 5, 2015 at 18:45

I believe that "hands-on" would be the most commonly heard substitute for "at the coalface" that you will find although it has no sense of using advanced technology. It would be a shame if "at the coalface" dropped completely out of use since it evokes how down and dirty daily labor can be. I started coding using punched cards in 1976 and I have never heard the expression "cut code" so I'm a little dubious about how common it might be. Common idioms can be several generations out of date. The Irish frequently use the word "yoke", as in "yoke the horse to the plow", where an American would likely say "widget" to mean any random piece of machinery.


In tech-related fields you could say, you are working or dealing with cutting-edge or bleeding-edge stuff. This, however, describes more your work, rather than the way you are working.

  • 1
    Also - at the sharp end. Feb 6, 2015 at 9:27

To me the modern software development equivalent is: "I haven't fired up a compiler in a while" meaning I haven't written any code lately.


How about "worked the streets" which contrary to public opinion is not about prostitutes but rather mongers, hawkers, and other street vendors. Police also adopt the term sometimes.

  • I've only heard that term used by police. I'd certainly use it if a police officer got moved to desk / management work, but I don't think it really generalizes.
    – neminem
    Feb 5, 2015 at 22:25

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