Elbow grease. This is a term that’s long bugged me. It never really seemed logical. How exactly could it relate to hard work or effort? The grease I can kind of understand as a metaphor, because it could make a job easier if it involved moving stubborn parts. But why elbow?
I thought about this term again recently after reading a thread online wherein someone asked how medieval English knights kept their armour from rusting in the rain (they shook it around in a barrel of sand!). Somebody else mentioned that their squires would take care of the armour, including oiling it to keep everything moving smoothly. Which would include their elbow joints. So the squires would rub oil, or grease, on the knights’ elbows. Grease for their elbows… Elbow grease!!??
It was a nice try, but I knew straight away I was clutching at straws. So I did a little research, and there are two main suggestions as to the origin of the term (which first appeared in English in the 17th century). One is that it first referred to cleaning objects such as furniture, and the idea that while there might be many fancy oils for cleaning something, sometimes you simply couldn’t beat just rubbing it. With your elbow. Doing this then became known as elbow grease, as it involves using your elbow instead of grease. This then came to be used to refer to any physical effort. And that sounds fairly plausible to me.
The other suggestion, is that elbow grease refers to sweat. Which kind of makes sense I suppose. I mean, sweat is similar to grease. One’s liquid, and one’s kind of liquid, except when it’s cold and congealed. And they are both good at lubrication. Plus, it’s logical that if you need to work harder you’ll sweat more, and therefore produce more delicious elbow grease.
But my question is: who sweats (much) from their elbows!? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say armpit grease, or even arm grease? (and yes, you can sweat in other areas too, but for the sake of decency, let’s keep to the general arm area) Maybe I’ve been doing sweating wrong all this time, and it’s normal to have sweaty elbows, but I doubt it. Maybe it’s because the sweat trickles down the arm and rolls off the elbow, but I doubt that too. But you know what? I’m not going to think about it too much, because while it’s always interesting to find the interesting stories behind words, sometimes there’s no logical, fascinating answer at the end. And it’s probably just a slightly illogical combination of the ideas of rubbing hard with your elbow, and sweating. Actually, maybe you’re supposed to sweat on the furniture, and then rub the sweat into it with your elbow…
Anyway, perhaps the second-most common situation in which English speakers will encounter the term is as part of a snipe hunt. A snipe hunt is when a new employee or member of an organisation is send off by his/her more experienced colleagues to find fictitious items. A glass hammer, transparent paint, a can of elbow grease, that sort of thing. It’s known as a snipe hunt due to its original association with outdoor camping in 19th-century America. A new group of scouts, for example, would be sent out to hunt for a made-up creature known as a snipe, and not to return until they’d caught one. Only a snipe is a very real type of bird, so why would we give an imaginary animal the name of a real bird? And why do we say elbow grease? Maybe because you might roll your sleeves up and make your elbows visible? Or maybe… You know, at times like this, it’s best to just let it go. Till tomorrow!