What Does Keep Your Nose Clean Mean?

Keep Your Nose Clean Meaning

Definition: Avoid getting in trouble.

Origin of Keep Your Nose Clean

There are many expressions that use dirty to refer to something immoral or criminal. There are also many uses of clean to describe something pure, or to talk about good, ethical behavior. For example, a dirty cop is a cop who takes bribes or commits other criminal acts. A clean conscious means a person doesn’t feel guilty.

There is some debate as to whether this idiom is American or British in origin. The phrase from which it originates is British: keep your hands clean.

Some sources, however, claim that when it became popular across the Atlantic, it took on the word nose instead of hands. Other claim that it made that switch before it ever came to America.

In any event, it was coined in the late-19th century. The reason for the phrase is not entirely evident. It might be that keeping your nose clean means not to “dirty” it by getting into someone else’s business.

By the 1940s, this expression was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

In modern contexts, parents will say this when giving advice to their children. However, it isn’t always an imperative (command form). As an example, one could say I kept my nose clean when I was young or If he doesn’t keep his nose clean he’ll end up in jail.

Examples of Keep Your Nose Clean

what does the phrase keep your nose clean meanThis example shows two women discussing their teenage children.

Bella: Did your daughter get invited to that pool party at Patricia’s house?

Hannah: Yes. Did your son get invited too?

Bella: Yes, but I’m not sure I’ll allow him to go. I’m worried there might be alcohol there. Will you allow your daughter?

Hannah: I already told her she could go. I told her that I trust her to stay out of trouble, but that she’d better keep her nose clean or else she’ll be grounded until she graduates high school.

keep your nose clean definition The following example shows two college students whispering to each other in class.

Hanh: I got in big trouble for plagiarizing that essay.

Zhongyi: I told you that would happen! You should have listened to me. Are they going to kick you out of the school?

Hanh: No, but they put me on academic probation. They told me that I need to follow all of rules very closely, because I won’t get a second chance. Basically, if I keep my nose clean I’ll still be able to graduate from here.

More Examples

The excerpt is about an actor giving advice in his speech, during a movie award ceremony.

  • Downey took the stage in red-lens shades to give his words of wisdom to the youth looking on: “Dream big. Work hard. Keep your nose clean.” –LA Times

The second example is about a young man who killed four people while drunk driving. Instead of getting jail time, he received probation. However, the criminal ran away from his probation, and now a law officer is vowing to put him in jail for getting in trouble.

  • “He needed to be locked up two years ago…. I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so,” Anderson said. “There was no way he was going to make 10 years and keep his nose clean.” –LA Times


The saying keep your nose clean means don’t do anything bad or don’t get involved with illegal or immoral activities.