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What Is Elbow Grease?

What exactly does the phrase elbow grease mean?

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for

what is elbow grease

What is elbow grease? And is it as gross as it sounds?

Let’s start by agreeing that grease does not come from elbows.

Rather, elbow grease is an idiom that means hard physical labor. It most likely references the effort involved in tasks like scrubbing a sink or sawing wood—your elbow, of course, bending and straightening in turn. 

Naturally, it takes elbow grease to attack any difficult task. 

The term elbow grease was first used in 1672; a 1699 dictionary of slang called it “a derisive word for sweat.” 

An 1889 book of proverbs had a more flattering take on the expression, noting that “elbow grease makes wealth increase.” The author elaborates: “elbow polish, or elbow grease, is a fine article in a household, and beats boar’s grease and goose grease into fits.”

In other words, hard work beats out any number of fancy formulas for getting things clean. 

Back in the day, elbow grease was exploited for practical jokes. An unfortunate young worker would be sent out to purchase the “elbow grease” for polishing furniture. The poor apprentice would walk from shop to shop until he either caught on to the joke … or gave up looking.

These days, elbow grease can refer to any type of hard work, physical or otherwise. You might tell your son to “put some elbow grease” into cleaning his room. You might also tell him to “put some elbow grease” into studying for exams. 

So, that’s your tidbit for today. Elbow grease refers to energetic labor—usually manual, but sometimes mental. 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Ammer, Christine. Elbow grease. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Farmer, John S. and W.E. Henley. Elbow Grease. Slang and its Analogues Past and Present, Vol. II, Printed for subscribers only, 1891 (accessed February 27, 2017).

Dent, Susie. Elbow grease. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Elbow grease (subscription required, accessed February 27, 2017).

Moore, Christopher J. Elbow Grease. The Queen's English: An A to Zed Guide to Distinctively British Words. Reader’s Digest, 2011.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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