Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elbow Grease

Someone who chose not to go on air and not to be identified left a question with our producer yesterday. The question was the meaning and origin of elbow grease.

Originally, it meant vigorous rubbing that works up a sweat. It shows up in old proverbs speaking of polishing furniture. As important as the polishing agent might be, throwing muscle pressure into the job was just as important.

And, in fact, the image seems to have started in the 17th century as an attempt at humor in furniture-making shops. A British tradition was for professionals to play tricks on their apprentices. In this case, the newbie would be told that the shop was out of elbow grease, and he would be sent out to buy some.

Eventually, elbow grease was extended to energetic efforts of any kind. Here’s a 1672 quote from Andrew Marvell cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: 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.”

SIDEBAR: an interview with Michael Sheehan

NOTE: If you live in the Grand Traverse region and are over 50, get a team of 3 together for this year's Senior Spelling Bee. Practice rounds at TADL Wed. April 25 & Thurs. April 26 at noon. Main event Friday, May 4th, 1 p.m., at the Gilbert Lodge on Twin Lakes. Call the TC Senior Center for details at 231-922-4911.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Check out Mike's program-based books here:

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now.

There is a collection of podcasts. Go to and click on Podcasts. Scroll down The Ron Jolly Show to find the Words to the Wise audio button.



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