Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Up to your knees in oil and grease, and a grindstone to your nose

The favourite song for young and old at home at the moment is Get Up by an eclectic French collective called Chinese Man. The video clip is well worth a look if only for the gigantic black hairy marshmallow faces bouncing across a desert landscape.

The song’s catchy chorus is sampled from a folk song from the 1950s and sung by a choir of chipmunks:

Get up, get out, you lazy lout
Get into your working clothes
Up to your knees in oil and grease
And a grindstone to your nose

It’s a song about hard physical work, captured in the expression ‘nose to the grindstone’ (meule) which today means to work hard and to focus intently on your work.

For many centuries the grinding of the stones in the mill was as important to village life as the church. Villages were built next to rivers and streams that would turn the enormous millstones that ground the grain into flour which become the daily bread.

The grinding of grain was a delicate operation. The miller (meunier) had to ensure a steady flow of grain between the millstones. If there was not enough grain the rubbing of the stones could create enough friction to set off sparks and the awful smell of brimstone (burning stone); also known as the sulphuric stench of hell. The miller had to regularly put his nose to the millstone to make sure the stones were not overheating. The dry flour dust and sparks from the stones were a deadly combination. An explosion at the Washburn “A” mill  (below) in Minneapolis USA in 1878 killed 18 people.

 But, despite this wonderful explanation, there are some that doubt this is the origin of the expression nose to the grindstone.

The grindstone was a round wheel of stone, usually sandstone, used for grinding or sharpening knives and tools. It had handles or pedals to change the speed of the stone to sharpen metal to perfection.

Knife grinders (like this man painted byFrancisco De Goya) would bend their bodies over the stone in intense concentration. Some would lie on their stomachs, with their noses centimetres from the blades and grindstone.


The original song, titled Get Up Get Out, was performed by the American folk group The Weavers whose line-up included the much loved Pete Seeger who died in January this year aged 94. This is the how the original sounded.

Lyrics Get Up (The Weavers)

When I was young and under ten
A silly wee fool was I
The morning that I left the school
I heard my mother cry

Get up, get out, you lazy lout
Get into your working clothes
Up to your knees in oil and grease
And a grindstone to your nose

I bought me a clock, a pretty good clock
To help me to tell the time
It awakened me every morning
With a very poetic rhyme

I married me a wife, a pretty good wife
And kept her many a year
Come what may, she'd begin each day
By whispering in my ear

Now some get to lie as long as they like
They're luckier men than me
I never get to lie very long
I'm only four foot three

In 2008 the word grinder took a great leap forward with the launch of Grindr, a mobile telephone application for gay and bi-sexual men to find sexual partners. The name Grindr was chosen according to its founders because it embodied the idea of "grinding" people together in the same way that a coffee grinder grinds coffee beans.

Finally, here’s the Grinderman of rock: Nick Cave.



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