'Elbow Grease': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 21, 2023

If you've ever heard anyone talk about 'elbow grease,' you might have wondered what they meant. Do we have grease on our elbows? Don't worry; in this article, you'll learn the meaning of this popular saying, its possible origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

If you're just here for the short version, here it is:

  • The term' elbow grease' refers to hard work, usually manual labor that's physically exerting.

What Does 'Elbow Grease' Mean?

Some call it an idiom, and others call it a colloquialism. Either way, the words shouldn't be interpreted literally. We don't actually have grease on our elbows!

  • It is a common idiom to convey the concept of putting in hard work or manual labor to accomplish a task, especially one that requires physical effort rather than relying solely on tools or machinery.
  • It implies the use of one's own physical strength and energy.

Imagine, for example, that you want to clean your kitchen but are a little disheartened because it is very dirty.

Your partner might say to you:

It might require a little elbow grease but don't worry, we can get it done.

It's definitely an informal phrase, which should be used, therefore, in informal contexts.

Where Does 'Elbow Grease' Come From?

The origin of the phrase "elbow grease" is somewhat unclear, but it is generally believed to have originated in the 17th century. The term has its roots in the literal meaning of 'grease' as an oily or slippery substance used to reduce friction. In this case, 'elbow grease' suggests the physical effort or energy applied in a manual task, with the symbolic idea that this effort has the same effect as the lubricating action of grease, making the task smoother.

Many sources identify its first appearance in writing to be in Andrew Marvell's 1672 work The Rehearsal Transpros'din which he writes:

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.

In this line, the ink and 'elbow-grease' seem to refer to the act of writing. Interestingly, the term 'elbow-grease' is also found in a book by John Clarke called Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, published in 1639. It's a translation of the Latin phrase olet lucernam, meaning 'it smells of the lamp.' There's another idiom in the English language, 'Burn the midnight oil,' which means to work hard into the night.

So, it appears that the term might have been used in other languages to imply hard work long before it made it to English. But this is just a hypothesis, and like many idioms, the true origin often gets lost over time as phrases evolve and are adapted to new times.

Notice also how the term used to have a hyphen, whereas now it's two separate words.

Examples in Sentences

Now, we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins. Here are some example sentences that use it.

Sarah applied some elbow grease to the old furniture, and soon it looked as good as new.

Before we go on vacation, we need to use a bit of elbow grease to clean the house and leave it spotless.

The car was covered in mud, so he grabbed a sponge and used some elbow grease to scrub it clean.

To get the stain out of the carpet, you'll need to use a carpet cleaner and a little elbow grease.

The mechanic rolled up his sleeves and applied some serious elbow grease to fix the engine problem.

The windows were so dirty that it took hours of elbow grease to make them crystal clear.

Before painting the room, we should give the walls a good wash with soap and water, using some elbow grease to remove any dirt.

It's amazing what a can of polish and a bit of elbow grease can do to revive an old pair of shoes.

The gardener used elbow grease to remove the stubborn weeds from the flower bed.

With a cloth and some elbow grease, she transformed the dusty shelves into a gleaming display for her books.

Other Ways to Say 'Elbow Grease'

There are plenty of other ways to express this idea of working hard. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

Here are some of them:

  • Roll up one's sleeves
  • Put in the effort
  • Exert oneself
  • Give it one's all
  • Apply muscle
  • Work hard
  • Dig in
  • Grind it out

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this famous saying. To summarize, to say that you need to put in some elbow grease means you just have to apply a bit of hard work.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!    

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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