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From "An Ode to America" (The Atlantic's Jan/Feb 2022 issue):

“Pretty good nose you got there! You do much fighting with that nose?”
New Orleans, 1989. I’m standing on a balcony south of the Garden District, and a man—a stranger—is hailing me from the street. He looks like Paul Newman, if Paul Newman were an alcoholic housepainter. I don’t, as it happens, do much fighting with this nose, but that’s not the point. The point is that something about me, the particular young-man way I’m jutting into the world—physically, attitudinally, beak first—is being recognized. The actual contour of me, or so I feel, is being saluted. For the first time.

The use of "beak" surprised me on a first gander through the piece, because, well, humans do not have beaks. What is meant by saying he went "beak first", and why would this unusual term be used?

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    beak can also mean a nose, especially a large one. Is the narrator's nose implied to be large, or otherwise noteworthy, by the "pretty good nose" remark?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 2 at 21:34
  • @Randal'Thor the quoted bit is the only place with references to either beaks or noses
    – bobble
    Jan 2 at 21:35
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I would hazard to guess that "beak first" is meant to be interpreted similarly to "headfirst." This makes the meaning line up with the references to the "particular young-man way I'm jutting into the world," implying a certain recklessness and carelessness that is associated with young men in literature and matches the idea behind the phrase "headfirst." The metaphorical meaning of jumping in headfirst is usually defined as doing something without much thought or consideration first.

As for why the specific word "beak" was used, it does match up with the references to noses in the other parts of the passage, as beaks and noses are often associated in literature. It also matches the idea of "jutting" into the world, as beaks are sharply pointed and therefore would be something that juts into other things. "Jutting" is defined as:

to extend out, over, or beyond the main body or line of something; a point that sticks out. (Oxford Languages Google Dictionary)

As @Tsundoku also pointed out in the comments, one of the synonyms for "nose" is pecker (at least in colloquial British English), a word that means "beak" in American English. So "beak first" could also be read as "nose first".

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  • One of the synonyms for "nose" is pecker (at least in colloquial British English), a word that means "beak" in American English. So "beak first" could be read as "nose first".
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 3 at 12:23
  • Could you provide a reference for the definition of "jutting"? (Not that I doubt it - just that I like dictionary references when a word is important)
    – bobble
    Jan 3 at 17:21
  • @Tsundoku beak is also informally used to mean nose in BrE.
    – Matt Ellen
    Jan 6 at 16:21

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