15

What does "too on the nose" mean, especially as applied to art?

I use the expression but struggle to explicitly articulate what I mean. My best attempt is that I use it to refer to film, music, etc. that lacks subtlety and nuance, for example cheaply getting emotional heft from very directly stating cliched and unsubtle emotions.

Too:

  1. In addition; also
  2. More than enough; excessively
  3. To a regrettable degree - AHDEL/TFD

Obviously, I'm using too in the sense of #2 or #3.

And the idiom on the nose:

Exactly, precisely; ...This term... may come from boxing, where the opponent's nose is a highly desired target. - AHDI/TFD

I haven't been able to find reliable definitions for too on the nose online (they're swamped by definition of 'on the nose', which is apparently often a positive phrase meaning exact or precise).

You can't be "too on the nose" in boxing. Can it have a negative meaning or is this a misuse of the phrase?

  • 2
    I'd say you have the words you want: "lacking subtlety", "unnuanced", "cheaply gained emotions", "cliched".... these would all seem to convey what you want. – A.Ellett May 25 '15 at 16:17
  • 1
    Are you sure you didn't hear someone say "Two on the nose"? That's a statement of a bet -- '(I bet) two [dollars? pounds?] on that horse to win (not place or show) in a particular race'. – John Lawler May 25 '15 at 17:12
  • How about "gauche"? – Jeremy Nottingham May 26 '15 at 3:45
  • 1
    @JohnLawler, I'm sure that's the phrase, I've seen it written by reputable critics. – tog22 May 30 '15 at 19:02
  • Well, this prompted a bunch of interesting discussion and answers, though I ultimately accepted medica's because it was closest to the aesthetic context I was asking about. – tog22 May 30 '15 at 19:03

11 Answers 11

12

In the acting/script/play/film world, "too on the nose" is a pretty common phrase which means lacking in sub-text, too obvious, having neither subtlety nor sophistication. In life, people can't usually say what they mean for one reason or another; when they do in film or theater it comes across as unrealistic.

12

Assume "on the nose" means perfect - a positive connotation, as you've stated.

Too "on the nose" means too perfect. Which, as you've noted, connotes a negative.

Take a subjective matter such as painting. If you're going for freedom, expression of movement, light, etc., rendering something in too much detail can ruin the effect, in essence, the rendering is too perfect and therefore lifeless or absent of movement or subtlety.

An example of this is found in the later paintings of JMW Turner, e.g. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway:

enter image description here

Here, a lot of detail ("perfect" rendering) would have ruined the evocative effect of the painting.

  • 1
    Thanks, that gives me greater insight into painting, and seems fairly easily extensible to words/lyrics, dialogue, music, and plot. – tog22 May 25 '15 at 16:02
  • I think it's close to what you say here. Rather than "perfect", if we take "on the nose" to mean "on target" then "too on the nose" would mean too targeted or too direct, i.e. lacking subtlety or without applying a writer's craft. – Chris H May 31 '15 at 18:47
  • @ChrisH - that's a good observation; I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks for the comment. – anongoodnurse May 31 '15 at 19:14
12

There's another reasonably common usage which relates as much to the audience as the work itself. A work which is "too on the nose" is one which gives an accurate view of the world that people won't like hearing, reading or talking about, and so will be unpopular.

An author who was beheaded for writing a political play which criticized the King of Smallandistan for beheading all of his critics could be described as writing something which was "too on the nose".

5

An example might help. Here is a scene from the popular comedy Family Guy where Brian, the family dog, fears he is no longer wanted as a pet. He is talking to his owner Peter, as Stewie (Peter's infant son and Brian's best friend) comments acerbically:

            PETER
Hey, Brian, I thought maybe we could spend 
an afternoon together? 

            BRIAN
Really? That'd be great!

            PETER
Awesome! 'Cause I've got this new gun.

            STEWIE
Here we go.

            PETER
And I thought we could go deep in the woods.
Where no one would ever think to look.

            STEWIE
Oh, boy.

            PETER
And uh... just shoot it.

            STEWIE
Awkward.

            PETER
You know, like so far in no one can hear a 
gun fire.

            STEWIE
Little on the nose.

            PETER
Or screaming.

            BRIAN
Uh, I don't think so, Peter.
  • 2
    +1 - This was the only answer that made sense to me... I think others are reaching. "Too on the nose, " is simply a hint or allusion to something - meant to be subtle or disguised - that is, in fact, obvious to all. – Oldbag May 26 '15 at 10:25
  • Interesting that they dropped the "too" but it is still implied. – juil Jul 3 '17 at 17:34
4

Although one can legitimately rationalize the OP expression, the disparity between on the nose and too creates significant semantic confusion.

Examples of how on the nose would normally be applied:

  • Not too high; not too low; just the right height--on the nose.
  • Not too far left; not too far right; in just the right location--on the nose.
  • Not too big; not too small; just the right size--on the nose.
  • Not too fast; not too slow; just the right speed--on the nose.
  • Not too hot; not too cold; just the right temperature--on the nose.
  • Not too hard; not too soft; just the right firmness--on the nose.
  • Not too much; not too little; just the right amount--on the nose.

Native speakers of English intuitively perceive a general connotation in the expression on the nose:

Not too extreme in any parameter of measurement.

Since too on the nose establishes an inconsistent comparison of an extreme, it would be more clear to identify the specific parameter of perfection and say:

It is too [specific parameter].

Examples:

  • It is too precise.
  • It is too focused.
  • It is too measured.
  • It is too literal.
  • It is too unequivocal.
  • It is too proper.
  • It is too explicit.
2

In terms of writing, a reference that's "too on the nose" can mean a comparison that's so perfect in every detail, that it becomes too obvious and ruins the humor, similar to a comedian that explains their own joke.

You want to make a parody jab or allusion to someone or something, but you make the comparison so explicit that you kill the cleverness in it. It's so direct and obvious that it ends up being hamhanded and unfunny.

1

It can be intended to mean very (conveying emphasis). It generally means also (in addition, additionally), or excessive (excessively, etc.). I suppose in this case it would depend on how the person is saying it. In a sentence referring to art, they could mean; over the top (i.e. "that artist went overboard"), very much on target (i.e. like "right on the money"), or too redundant (such as; the artist going out of their way to accentuate every ideal or expectation within the artworks genre). I am not familiar with this phrase so I can't tell you which, traditionally speaking, if there is even a tradition in which it lies (lay, perhaps one is being put into motion now - joke).

I suppose it depends on the larger sentence, paragraph, and/or grammar. This is generally how you derive intent. If it was something you heard, then you must interpret based on vocal intent and body language.

0

The phrase can mean something else that hasn't been covered in other answers.

It can mean that the speaker doesn't believe that the data in question is a spontaneous utterance, or believes that the "question" was written around the answer.

What is the human population of Earth? 7.2 billion

That is a bit too on the nose for it not to have come from Google. If I had answered the question spontaneously, I probably would have said, "something over seven billion".

0

The other definition of "on the nose" is when something smells fishy, pungent or otherwise off, either metaphorically or literally.

Someone describing art as "too on the nose" would make me think they were likening it to a cheap perfume too liberally applied.

0

I'm with @Moolric on this one: in 50 years of life I almost always heard or read "on the nose" in the Australian idiomatic context... in which context it means "off" (i.e., rotten, corrupt, odd, strange, 'shady' - sometimes literally, but most often metaphorically). "Mate, did you see that story about those ALP bigwigs rorting their expenses? Those buggers always strike me as being on the nose".

Another context for 'on the nose' (again, idiomatic) when someone places a bet to win, but not to place (bets to win or place are an 'each way bet'; betting $100 'on the nose' means betting only on the win).

Maybe Americans use it along the same lines as 'hit the nail on the head' or 'rem accu tettigisti', but I can't recall ever seeing it used that way.

'Too on the nose' jars me in the same way as 'different than' - another American usage - or people who say "the orange" without elision (i.e., 'thuh-orange' instead of thee-yorange")...

-2

I thought the origin of too on the nose came from wine tasting. Describing the wine as having no depth or complexity.

  • 1
    A wine lacking in depth or complexity would have no nose or little nose, quite the opposite of "too on the nose" which, for a wine, would be interpreted as meaning the aromatics are overpowering or strongly unpleasant. – Chappo Apr 15 at 8:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.