“Elbow grease” means hard work, especially vigorous physical labor or effort.
The phrase is often applied to tasks like scrubbing a sink or sawing wood — your elbow, of course, bending and straightening in turn. It has long been said that the best sort of furniture polish is “elbow-grease,” to mean there is no substitute for hard rubbing to create a lustrous shine.
The term elbow grease was first used in the 1600s. It is found in print in 1672 in Rehearsal Transpros’d by the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. It is also found in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699).
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.
Into “fits”? Okaaay.
Other countries have expression that are very similar. The French have huile de bras or l’huile de coude, which translate as “elbow-grease” and the Danes have knofedt, which translates as “knuckle fat.”
Back in the day, elbow grease was exploited for practical jokes. An unfortunate young worker would be sent out to purchase “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. My mother used to tell me to “put some elbow grease” into scrubbing the floor. You might also tell someone to “put some elbow grease” into studying for exams, though I’ve never heard it used for mental effort.
Why can’t we use “stomach fat”? I could stand to lose some of that.