A fool’s errand: uncovering the origins of “elbow grease”

Someone close to me once worked in the hardware department at Sears. I recall his telling me about a family combing the aisles and growing ever more flustered by the minute. Asked what elusive item they were looking for, the family sheepishly replied, “Elbow grease”. Unfortunate but perhaps not all that surprising that these non-native English speakers had taken this common expression literally and embarked on a fool’s errand, particularly given the phrase’s origins.

I’m sure most would agree that grease does not come from elbows—a good thing, since I once had an ophthalmologist who liked to remind his patients never to rub their eyes with anything smaller than an elbow. No, “elbow grease” instead refers to strenuous or energetic labour.

The first citation, in 1639, was in the phrase “the smell of elbow grease”, which suggests that it may derive from a jocular way of referring to sweat. In fact, A New Dictionary of Terms, Ancient and Modern, of the Canting Crew (1699), whose aim was to educate the polite London classes in canting, includes “elbow grease” as “a derisory word for sweat”.

It appears to have first been used in print by 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 alluding to writing, suggesting that, although religious meetings could be disrupted by the speakers’ opponents, printed material—his figurative “elbow-grease”—could be circulated unhindered. A rather crass figure of speech perhaps, but inclusion of the phrase in the New Dictionary of the Canting Crew suggests that it was a lower-class term. After all, cant was the secret language of the rogues, beggars, vagabonds, thieves and ruffians who peopled the underworld of early England.

A more elevated take appears in The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs, Together With Homely Notes (1889), where “elbow grease” alludes to the the way the elbow is used in hard polishing:

Elbow grease makes wealth increase.
Elbow polish makes old chairs new.

This said elbow polish, or elbow grease, is a fine article in a household, and beats bear’s grease and goose grease into fits.

Put another way, hard work surpasses all manner of fancy formulas for getting things clean and arriving at a lustrous shine.

“Elbow-grease”, it turns out, was also reported for use in a fool’s errand, a practical joke or prank in which an unwitting apprentice or recruit is sent to retrieve “elbow grease” for polishing furniture. The unfortunate worker would walk from shop to shop until he either caught on to the joke or gave up looking.

As a figure of speech, “elbow grease” is commonplace in our popular culture. An advertisement by the General Motors Truck Company (GMC), for example, shows a few men failing to move a small boulder. A GMC van then backs onto the scene, much to the surprise of the frustrated and defeated men, who discover several large barrels of elbow grease in the rear.

In today’s parlance, “elbow grease” can refer to any type of hard work, or to any physical, manual or, yes, emotional labour, something that transcends language. Interestingly, French uses “huile de bras” or “huile de coude”, which translate as ‘“elbow grease” and in Danish we find “knofedt”, literally “knuckle fat”.

Whatever you choose to call it, be thankful that I put my nose to the grindstone, saving you the trouble of uncovering the etymology of this curious expression. If it doesn’t require too much elbow grease on your part, drop a comment below.

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