Where does the term, "on the nose" (to mean accuracy) come from?

Dictionaries such as Oxford Dictionaries list the expression both under "nose" and on its own page, but the only etymology they list is of "nose":

Old English nosu, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch neus, and more remotely to German Nase, Latin nasus, and Sanskrit nāsā; also to ness.

  • 3
    What research have you done, e.g. online search? Aug 31, 2018 at 4:03
  • 1
    Related: What does "too on the nose" mean?
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 31, 2018 at 7:52
  • More research. There's quite a bit that be found online. Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Oct 30, 2019 at 10:53
  • The question about geographic distribution is a good one, though.
    – Kris
    Oct 30, 2019 at 10:54

2 Answers 2


According to The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary the idiomatic expression On the nose probably derives from boxing, suggesting that the opponent’s nose was the target:

Exactly, precisely; especially, at the appointed time or estimated amount.

For example, The busload of students arrived at the museum at ten o'clock right on the nose , or He guessed the final score on the nose.

This term, like on the button, may come from boxing, where the opponent's nose is a highly desired target. [c. 1930]

The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by Martin Manser, 2018, has an alternative suggestion to its origin:

The expression on the nose, meaning 'exactly; at target point' is said to have originated in the early day of radio broadcasting. Directors in soundprooof control rooms made certain signals to the assistants performing the actual programme. Putting the forefingers along the nose meant that the programme was running precisely on time. Other signs included the director “sawing” his throat forcefully to mean “cut”.

Early usage example from The Phrase Finder

The New Yorker: Volume 23, Part 6, 1948:

I really thought Knapsack could win the race, so I sent a boy to put a bet on him. I told the boy to put twenty-five thousand on the nose on Knapsack.

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    +1 The downvote that this answer initially received is without rational basis, as far as I can see.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 10, 2018 at 0:08
  • I would never have thought of boxing here. I’ve always just assumed it was just because the nose is (conceptually if not necessarily anatomically) in the centre of the face, just like a bulls-eye in the centre of the target. Hitting something right on the nose is basically the same as hitting it bulls-eye. Nov 10, 2018 at 0:21
  • @SvenYargs I have not voted on this answer yet, but I can understand why it has a vote against it. This proposes three separate theories without providing any reason to believe one over the other, and hence fails to actually demonstrate the actual origin. Also, if any one of these answers is correct, the other two are incorrect, unless it can be shown that the phrase developed independently in all three instances. Do you vote for it for containing the correct answer (if it does) to sort that up , or against it for including misinformation in order to sort that down?
    – Tonepoet
    Nov 10, 2018 at 19:52
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    @Tonepoet - it sometime happens that words or expression don’t have one indisputable origin. It is sometime the case that an expression has a few supposed origins, all of which might fit the context. So sometime the “correct answer” is no specific answer.
    – user 66974
    Nov 10, 2018 at 20:22
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    @Tonepoet: I voted for this answer because I think it makes a useful contribution toward a better understanding of the competing theories of the phrase's origin. In my view, when competing plausible theories of a phrase's origin exist, it's good to be aware of them; and in acknowledging them, it seems to me, one is accurately reflecting the complexity and ambiguity of the current state of knowledge—not promoting misinformation by failing to identify "the correct answer."
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 10, 2018 at 20:28

Early usage of on the nose and other variants:

The OED gives us early usage in horse racing:

d. orig. U.S. The nose of a horse used as an indication of the smallest possible winning margin in a horse race (as an official designation in the United States, comparable to ‘short head’ in the United Kingdom). Also in extended use of dogs. by a nose, by a very narrow margin; (to bet (etc.)) on the nose and variants: to back a horse to win (as opposed to betting for a place, or betting each way). to push (also get) one's nose in front: to manage to get into the lead (in a race, contest, etc.).

From an example sentence in the same reference - speaking of the horse's nose:

1851 E. S. Wortley Trav. in U.S. II. xvii. 335 They ran a rather severe race, the majestic Pacific (a splendid bay) winning at last only by a nose.

  • This doesn’t actually do much to answer the question; it just gives the definition, which the asker already knows. The only thing it adds is a first year of attestation, which is useful when searching for the origin, but doesn’t say anything about the origin itself. Nov 10, 2018 at 0:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet narrowed down reference to baseball
    – lbf
    Nov 10, 2018 at 1:09
  • The example sentence from 1851 is for the idiom "by a nose"—meaning "by the length of a nose"—that is, "just barely." The normal idiomatic sense of "on the nose" today (in U.S. English, at least) is "squarely" or "exactly," as in striking something with maximum force or precision.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 11, 2018 at 3:21
  • See also, my comment at user067531.
    – Kris
    Oct 30, 2019 at 10:52

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