Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Episode 148: Elbow Grease Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 148: Elbow Grease

Record Date: March 7, 2022

Air Date: March 9, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “a little elbow grease goes a long way”, you might be forgiven for thinking this was the origin of elbow grease. But in fact, elbow grease in English comes more than 300 years before that phrase. But more to the point, is the phrase about greasy elbows? Or perhaps the smell that inevitably comes with someone is employing some of that elbow grease?

Well that is what we are going to answer today. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Elbow Grease refers to


Vigorous rubbing, proverbially referred to as the best unguent for polishing furniture. Hence allusively, energetic labour of any kind.

End Quote 

I’ve heard it used that way, with vigorous rubbing. But most of the time I heard “elbow grease”, it is being used as a stand-in for the phrase “hard work”. In fact, Merriam Webster list’s this as their definition for elbow grease


Hard work, especially vigorously applied physical labor or effort

End Quote

For native speakers, this probably makes sense how we got this phrase. The elbow is the bendy part of the arm and it’s doing quite a bit of the work when rubbing something, like trying to wipe off that dried food that got left on the counter overnight.

But grease may not be as obvious. Grease, according to the OED, is 


The melted or rendered fat of animals, esp. when it is in a soft state

End Quote

The OED also notes that, by extension, oily or fatty matter in general can be called grease, especially such that it is used as a lubricant.

So a literal interpretation of elbow grease would be something that lubricates your elbow.

Did you know we actually do have elbow grease? It’s called synovial fluid, or sometimes, synovia. Back to the OED, synovia is


The viscid albuminous fluid secreted in the interior of the joints, and in the sheaths of the tendons, and serving to lubricate them; also called joint-oil or joint-water.

End Quote 

I hate joint water. I’ve never heard it called that and if someone did say that I would assume they were talking about bong water. And I definitely don’t want bong water in my elbow.

Anyway, the job of synovia is to lubricate our synovial joints like our elbow, knee, shoulders, and ankles. And since much of the work of rubbing is done with our arms, it makes sense to call such work elbow grease.

It is from this we get our earliest usages of elbow grease, which was to work hard at rubbing something in. And because we are working hard at it, we can get sweaty. And with sweat, comes the natural odors of our body. 

The first time I could find it in print was in a 1616 work called.

In the “Ls”, because the Latin was first. So I’ll read the Latin, then the English version of the adage:


End Quote 

I saw several books from throughout the 1600s that used this same phrase in their own books of adages. These books were seemingly not connected to each other, so I feel comfortable saying this was an actual phrase. The direct translation to today’s English would be “it smells like a lamp”. The phrase “lucernam olet” was used in many books in the 1500s, but since I don’t speak Latin, and I’m certainly not a student of historical Latin, I can not tell you if the phrase always meant “it smells like elbow grease” or if the lamp oil smelled like sweat and this was more of an allusion, or if perhaps keeping lamps lit was hard work, and therefore the smell of a lamp was associated with hard work. 

Regardless, we can be comfortable saying “elbow grease” comes to English by way of Latin. The first we see it for sure is in the early 1600s, but it is quite likely the phrase is older than that, even in English. 

Let’s continue the story of elbow grease after it made it to English. Here is the first example I found of elbow grease that wasn’t tied to that Latin phrase. This one is from the 1639 work:


End Quote

This next one is the most often one cited as the first attestation, though as more works are getting digitized we keep finding earlier examples. This one is from 1672, out of:


End Quote

This next one is from a book of slang and cant uses, which is dated by the fine folks at Cornell University as being approximately 1690.

This gives the phrase, a brief definition, an example sentence, then additional explanation of the definition


Elbow grease: A derisory term for sweat. It will cost nothing but a little elbow-grease; in a jeer to one that is lazy, and thinks much of his labour.

End Quote

I think we’ve got a handle on our phrase at this point, but I do want to give some examples of its use in the following centuries. 

Let’s jump to 1788, in 


Elbow Grease. Labour. Elbow grease will make an oak table shine.

End Quote

British English and American English began to diverge during the separation of the United States and England in the mid to late 1700s. I recognize that’s an oversimplification, but it is also a topic for another time. 

So for the next two centuries, I’ll include examples from both. This one out of the Morning Herald, London, 31 August 1825.

Back in the Americas, this one is from 1836. To give you context to the timeline, the article next to this one on the page was an obituary for Aaron Burr, the former Vice President who may be best known to many of our listeners as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton.

This piece, having nothing to do with Hamilton or Burr, was entitled “hard times” and seems to advocate working harder. 

This is a familiar refrain we hear from some today, that people who are struggling just need to work harder to build a brighter future. But as this shows, it was a common sentiment in 1836 and almost 200 years later the opening line - High rents and prices for everything we eat and wear - are still a subject of universal complaint. So maybe a little additional elbow grease isn’t the answer.

This next one is from the Henley and South Oxford Standard out of Oxfordshire on 10 September 1909 in an article titles An “Elbow Grease” Economiser


Nickel plate must frequently be cleaned and polished. This can be done by using a mixture of washing soda and ammonia, with a little thin whiting paste when it comes to the polishing. 

End Quote

I ran into several examples that lead me to believe British folks in the early to mid 1900s greatly admired their polished metals. I saw one that I won’t include here that was all about the new buttons the constables would be wearing and how they didn’t need to be polished and they shined regardless. We’ll visit that one in the behind the scenes for this episode.

Here’s one from 1936, out of the Homemaker News, a publication of the United States Department of Agriculture press service, October 15, 1936.


End Quote

When researching, I noticed British English tended to lean more towards elbow grease being about rubbing or cleaning, while American English tended to be more broad with any type of hard work. But it’s clear the phrase lends itself to physical labor on both sides of the pond, regardless of the scope. 

Next up, I want to look at the longer phrase, “a little elbow grease goes a long way”, but first we want to thank our sponsors who make the show possible!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses


Where did the phrase “a little elbow grease goes a long way” come from?

The first time I saw something like it - but not exactly - was in an 1897 advertisement out of London. 

I didn’t find the exact phrase until 1961 in the Homemakers Radio News by the New York State College of Home Economics Extension Service.

Radio homemakers were a huge market  before the 1950s. They were radio programs that catered especially to farm wives and were oftentimes hosted by farm wives. The genre was one of the few live programs that survived the switch to recorded media post 1950. That switch was largely influenced by television shows like those hosted by Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan. Radio homemaker shows still had a huge reach, so it is possible this is where the popularity of the phrase came from.

The phrase is frequently still used today. I see many people wrongly attribute the full phrase to being the origin, but we know elbow grease was in use over 300 years before the phrase “a little elbow grease goes a long way” came about.

And with that, let’s look at some of those modern uses for elbow grease.

2014ish Song

And we’ll start with a song. Scott Pemberton’s song Elbow Grease was released on Spotify in 2015, though I found a video of it from a 2014 performance, so I’m not certain when it was written. 

The song opens with a sort of call and response


How do you get where you want to be

With Hard work

And how do you get the work done

You got to do it

There’s only one thing that can keep you from your dreams

That’s if you quit

So let’s get the job done, One, Two, Go Team

End Quote

It’s kind of a jazz, funk, rock fusion. Very interesting. I enjoyed it. 

2015 Song

Next up is a Country song, Elbow Grease by Rod Picott

It’s off the 2015 album Fortune

The chorus goes


Now ain’t I lucky, yes you are

How’d a wreck like me even get this far

One more chance is all I need 

I got a lucky charm and elbow grease

End Quote

This next one is a little bit of its own adventure.

The movie “Elbow Grease” was released in 2016. Sort of. It was rejected by all of the major film festivals. It was directed by Jason Shirley and starred R. Keith Harris, Whitney Goin, and Burt Reynolds. It looks like a slice of life drama/comedy movie. Think Hallmark Movie meets Napoleon Dynamite. The film wasn’t able to get much traction until years later, when it was finally released in 2021 under the new title “An Innocent Kiss”. We’ll link to the trailer in the show notes and on Patreon. 

In 2018, former superstar wrestler turned hollywood actor John Cena released a children's book called Elbow Grease. It turned out to be the first in a series. Here’s the synopsis of the original from Amazon.


Meet Elbow Grease, a little monster truck with a big problem! He's smaller than his four brothers, but wants to prove that he has the guts and the grit to do big things. He decides that entering the Demolition Derby is the perfect way to show everyone that what he lacks in horsepower he makes up for in gumption. From multi-talented mega celebrity John Cena comes this exciting story about the importance of believing in yourself and never giving up. Full of high-octane illustrations and a new character kids will cheer for, this fun and fast-paced book proves that a little Elbow Grease . . . can go a long way!!

End Quote

You can watch a video of John Cena reading his book on the Youtube Channel Brightly Storytime. 

From the Twitterverse

Here are two uses from Twitter, one focused more on the rubbing kind of elbow grease, the other with a more broad focus.

Wrap up...

This phrase definitely went in a different direction than I anticipated. I did not expect it to be so old. I also didn’t expect the fuller phrase we hear today to be 300 years younger than elbow grease itself. 

As for its meaning, I do think hard work is one component to achieving some goals. But it is rarely the only component. And sometimes hard work just won’t do the trick. That’s not meant to excuse someone who isn’t willing to put in the effort to get what they want. But I do think the idea of hard work is sometimes weaponized to keep others down. Hard work is great, sometimes necessary. But not everyone puts in hard work in the same way. So keep that in mind next time you tell someone to give it a little more elbow grease. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


Poll time! 

Recently, we asked our Patrons… Which words do you have trouble spelling? They could select one or more of the following options:

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Of the list, every one of these words proved difficult to our Patrons. Cantaloupe got the most votes, with rhythm and weird coming in a close second place. 


I used an article from to help me generate the words and I mispelled every single one of those words when I put them into Patreon to create the poll. I remember one time I misspelled cantaloupe so badly that Google couldn’t even figure out what word I meant. That’s pretty bad.


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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