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.


  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?

  • 4
    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
    Commented May 25, 2015 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'. Commented May 25, 2015 at 17:12
  • How about "gauche"? Commented May 26, 2015 at 3:45
  • 1
    @JohnLawler, I'm sure that's the phrase, I've seen it written by reputable critics.
    – tog22
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 19:02
  • 1
    I picture the "on the nose" in "too on the nose" to mean something entirely distinct from the other idiom which is simply "on the nose". I think "too on the nose" is not itself referring to the latter idiom, but that it means something more like "in your face", whereas the latter is similar to "right between the eyes" (meaning accurate). I think they are independently appealing to a visual metaphor, the first ("too on the nose") with unwelcome proximity to the face, and the latter ("on the nose") with perfect central alignment. I'd say it's a coincidence they both refer to the nose.
    – Myridium
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 10:11

12 Answers 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
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 16:02
  • 1
    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
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 18:47
  • @ChrisH - that's a good observation; I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks for the comment. Commented May 31, 2015 at 19:14

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.

  • 1
    This is supported by Wiktionary, which has a number of definitions for "on the nose" including "Unimaginative; over-literal; lacking nuance."
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 13:59

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:

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

Really? That'd be great!

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

Here we go.

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

Oh, boy.

And uh... just shoot it.


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

Little on the nose.

Or screaming.

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
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 10:25
  • Interesting that they dropped the "too" but it is still implied.
    – juil
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 17:34
  • 1
    "little" is often used ironically like this to mean "excessive(ly)" or "a lot".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 13:55

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].


  • 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.

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.


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")...


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.


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".


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.


As others have said, "on the nose" means similar to. If A is "on the nose" with regards to B, then it is a good analogy to or representation of it.


When one says "too on the nose", now A is too close to B. Now A reminds us of the bad aspects of B, the aspects we prefer to ignore.

If this is a painting, it is "on the nose" if it faithfully reproduces the scene, but it is "too on the nose" if the artist choose to include the drunk throwing up and the dog defecating (though I would expect it to be used of something someone said, rather than art).


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

  • 2
    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. Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 8:38

I think in these terms it means sticking your thumb on your nose and waving your fingers, ie in your face, obvious. Lacks subtlety, unrefined even uncouth.

  • 2
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 10:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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