Green’s Dictionary of Slang

elbow grease n.

also elbow, elbow polish
[the movement of one’s elbow]

1. physical effort; note B.E. defines elbow-grease as ‘a derisory term for sweat’, but his extra examples, e.g. it will cost nothing but a little elbow-grease, imply this sense.

[UK]Marvell Rehearsal Transpos’d I 5: Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more Harm than an hundred Schismatical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.
[UK]B.E. Dict. Canting Crew n.p.: Elbow-grease, a derisory Term for Sweat.
[UK]Grose Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue.
[UK]Dialogue between a Noted Shoemaker and his Wife 4: I’ll liquor your hide and baste your sides with good elbow grease, till I make you repent.
[UK]Lex. Balatronicum.
[UK]J. Galt Entail III 84: He has scartit and dinit my gude mahogany table past a’ the power o’ bees-wax and elbow grease to smooth.
[US]Bartlett Dict. Americanisms 128: elbow-grease. Persevering exercise of the arms, exciting perspiration; hard rubbing.
[UK]‘George Eliot’ Adam Bede (1873) 60: Nowhere else could an oak clock-case and an oak table have got such a polish by the hand: genuine ‘elbow-polish,’ as Mrs. Poyser called it.
[US]G.W. Nichols Story of the Great March 45: It’ll take [...] a heap of rain, and a deal of elbow-grease, to fix things up again.
[UK]London Figaro 31 Oct. n.p.: Often have I been frequently admonished to put some elbow-grease into my work [F&H].
[US]New Northwest (Portland, OR) 25 July 4/2: These domestic reformers tell us ‘it costs one nothing to keep clean except a little soap, water and elbow grease’.
Mineral Argus (Maiden, MT) 3 Apr. 1/5: The apparatus is plain and simple and the elbow grease of many an unfortunate boy is averted.
[UK]S.O. Addy Sheffield Gloss. 69: Elbow-Grease, perservering use of the arms.
[UK]G.F. Northall Warwickshire Word-Book 72: Elbow-grease. Persevering labour of the arms.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 16 Aug. 13/3: After a few lessons the boy learned to scrub and wash with surprising cleanliness, putting more ‘elbow grease’ into the performance than any of my other helps. Of course it seems a bit queer at first to dispense with the familiar draggle-tail.
[US]Commoner (Lincoln, NE) 30 June 8/4: Rub on the old furniture [...] with plenty of elbow grease.
[UK]W. Pett Ridge Madame Prince 20: You’ll have the job, some day, of keeping ’em bright [...] Requires some elbow grease, mind you!
[UK]N. Jacob Man Who Found Himself (1952) 84: Not ovver mooch polish, Mr. Briscoe, plenty o’ elber grease and – lastly – a spot of – spit!
[US]J. Conroy World to Win 198: It takes a little willy an elbow grease. You gotta have the ol’ backbone.
[UK]E. Rutherford 28 March diary in Garfield Our Hidden Lives (2004) 198: I have no time for such things, give me a brush, some soap and elbow grease and I’m happy.
[Aus]D. Niland Call Me When the Cross Turns Over (1958) 104: Old Gentleman has to turn on the elbow every morning.
[UK]N. Cohn Awopbop. (1970) 106: I got where I am by hustle, bustle and elbow-grease.
[Ire]R. Doyle Commitments 133: James had a bottle of Mister Sheen. He polished the piano. – More elbow grease there, said Outspan.
[US]B. Hamper Rivethead (1992) 130: It was our labour, our [...] elbow-grease.
[US]P. Beatty White Boy Shuffle 6: Put some elbow grease into it, goddammit.
[US]J. Mabus ‘The Lights Are On in Michigan’ [lyrics] A little grit and elbow grease takes the rust down to the steel.

2. fiddle-playing.

[US]W.A. Caruthers Kentuckian in N.Y. I 217: O my grandmother! what jaunty heels they would have to sling after such elbow-grease as that.