I was reading a French blog the other day and I came across the phrase l'huile de coude, meaning "elbow grease." Since "elbow grease" is something I've known about in English all my life (parental exhortations to put a little elbow grease into my cleaning efforts), I was somewhat surprised to see the same expression in French.

That got me wondering about the etymology of the phrase and which language it occurred in first, and whether it transferred from one to the other. The online Etymology Dictionary states that the earliest English occurrence is circa 1670.

My French friends don't believe it is an anglicisme. Any thoughts on the matter?

  • It's certainly common in England. Don't know it's origin but I'm surprised it's that early – mgb May 24 '11 at 19:29
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    I'd bet it's even earlier, actually. 1672 is the very first citation in the OED, but that's not necessarily (or even likely to be, in many cases) the first. – senderle May 24 '11 at 19:42
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    FWIW, Hungarian doesn't really have anything similar, so it's not a niche that every language eventually fills. Etymonline says 'Phrase elbow grease "hard rubbing" is attested from 1670s, from jocular sense of "the best substance for polishing furniture."' – Marthaª May 24 '11 at 20:09
  • Argh! I know this one is in my Word Origins book, which is packed and in storage for the duration. Rats! – Kit Z. Fox May 24 '11 at 20:24
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    The Danish equivalent is knofedt (lit. "knuckle fat"), which is perhaps just similar enough to its English counterpart without being a precise copy that the concept may be old enough to be shared among other Germanic languages... – HaL May 24 '11 at 20:33

Edit: found the citation from 1672, from Andrew Marvell’s The Rehearsal Transpros'd:

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.

It's also defined in B.E.'s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., c.1698:

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.

I found no earlier mentions than senderle, but here are some useful references. These are the earliest references I could find, and helpfully, they are also dictionary definitions.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says

Phrase elbow grease "hard rubbing" is attested from 1670s, from jocular sense of "the best substance for polishing furniture."

There's a similarly colourful definition in Francis Grose's 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

ELBOW GREASE, labour, elbow grease will make an oak table shine.

(The rest of this dictionary is interesting too!)

Also, very pertinent to the question, here's The Royal Dictionary, French and English, and English and French by Abel Boyer in 1729:

Elbow-grease, (or Pains) Rude travail.

Rude travail is French for rough work. There's no entry for "l'huile de coude" in the French side.

And in John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley's 1905 A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English:

Elbow-grease. Energetic and continuous manual labour : e.g. Elbow-grease is the best furniture oil : Fr., huile de bras or de poignet ; du foulage (1779).

French huile de bras or de poignet is oil of the arm, wrist which is quite close. I think du foulage is fulling, the manual scouring and milling of cloth.

The earliest French reference I could "l'huile de coude" helpfully explains the term. In Jean Humbert's 1852 Nouveau Glossaire Genevois: Volume 1 (New Geneva Glossary):

Dans le langage badin des domestiques et des maîtresses, l'huile de coude, c'est le frottage, c'est-à-dire : Le travail de la servante qui frotte. Ces meubles, Madame, ne veulent pas devenir brillants. — C'est que, ma mie, tu y as sans doute économisé l'huile de coude; c'est-à-dire : Tu as trop ménagé ton bras et tes forces.

A rough translation:

In the playful language of servants and masters, elbow grease is rubbing, i.e. the work of the maid who scrubs. This furniture, Madam, does not want to shine. - My dear, that is because you have undoubtedly skimped on the elbow grease. In other words, you have conserved both your arm and your strength.

These references also suggest that "l'huile de coude" is an anglicisme.

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I can't trace it back any further than this, but I found "elbow-grease" in a book by John Clarke called Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina (1639), p. 92. It's used in the translation of a Latin idiom, olet lucernam, meaning literally "it smells of the lamp," or, in a more familiar idiom, of the "midnight oil" that one burns when working late into the night. Clarke translates it like so:

It smells of elbow-grease.

For those of you who don't have access to Early English Books Online, which is where I found it, there's a citation in a public-domain volume of Notes and Queries available through google books.

Further research turns up this French resource of uncertain authority, which seems to suggest that the phrase entered French in the nineteenth century. If that's correct, then "elbow-grease" is indeed an anglicisme (at least as far as French is concerned).

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    So you're saying that the phrase may have started because hard (late-night) work resulted in you getting grease/oil on your elbow, and then the phrase changed over time until you apply elbow grease as if to lubricate the joints? – Wayne May 24 '11 at 20:54
  • @Wayne, no, no, I'm simply saying that "elbow grease" was a term that in 1639 probably meant roughly what it means today: diligent, hard work. Presumably Clarke chose "elbow-grease" because it conveyed the meaning of the Latin idiom more clearly than the literal translation. – senderle May 24 '11 at 21:01
  • OK, I misunderstood. That's a pretty ancient phrase to still have the same meaning. – Wayne May 24 '11 at 21:39
  • @Wayne, is it such a surprising thought? Shakespeare died in 1616, but "wild goose chase," "salad days," and many other common idioms have not changed in meaning since he used them. – senderle May 24 '11 at 22:50
  • Somehow it does surprise me, especially for a metaphor that is far less literal than "wild goose chase", which means basically what you might imagine it to mean. ("Salad days" fails the "Wayne has heard of it" test, so I'd strike it from your list.) – Wayne May 25 '11 at 1:19

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