What we’ll need for 2017: a little “elbow grease”


He started it.

I don’t know about all of you New Year’s revelers, but I’ve been working steadily through the winter break, and feeling mightily miffed about missing so many opportunities to party. What will I need to make it through 2017? A little more elbow grease, I expect, which the U.K.’s “Phrase Finder” website (and thanks, Okla Elliot, for pointing it out to us) defines as “energetic labour.” I always assumed “elbow grease” was an American colloquialism. Not so, says Phrase Finder. In fact, it appears to have been coined by the poet Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678). The concept is pretty universal, though. Knofedt, anyone?

From the website: 

It has long been said that the best sort of furniture polish is ‘elbow-grease’, that is, there is no substitute for hard rubbing to create a lustrous shine. The term itself is older than might be imagined and dates back to at least the 17th century when it was used in print by the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell in Rehearsal Transpros’d, 1672:

Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more
Harm than an Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.

Marvell was suggesting that, although religious meetings could be disrupted or broken up by the speakers’ opponents, printed material could be circulated unhindered. Of course, Marvell was alluding to writing when he used the figurative expression ‘elbow-grease’. It was also used later in the same century, as it is used now, just to mean sweat or effort. An example of that usage is found in the 1699 New Dictionary of the Canting Crew:

Elbow-grease, a derisory Term for Sweat.

The expression’s inclusion in that dictionary, which itemises the language of the streets, suggests that it was a lower-class term.

Other countries have expression that are near-enough identical. In French we have ‘huile de bras’ or ‘l’huile de coude’, which translate as ‘elbow-grease’ and in Danish we find ‘knofedt’, which translates as ‘knuckle fat’.

Ramble through the whole website and look up your favorite hackneyed phrases here. Meanwhile, I hear a deadline whip cracking. Back to work!


2 Responses to “What we’ll need for 2017: a little “elbow grease””

  1. George Says:

    By golly! Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has not only “elbow grease” but also “elbow room”. The latter I had supposed American, not just for the size of the continent, but also because of a rhyme encountered in school and probably by the Benet’s, with the refrain “‘Elbow room!” cried Daniel Boone.”

  2. Richard Hill Says:

    Great article! I love etomology so this was right up my alley. It will make me put my nose to the grindstone and burn the midnight oil looking for more such stories.