Elbow grease

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Elbow grease is an idiom for working hard at manual labour, as in "You need to use some elbow grease." It is a humorous reflection of the fact that some tasks can only be achieved by hard effort and human energy, contrasting with the idea that there should be some special oil, tool or chemical product to make the job easier.

It has also been used as a practical joke by a master tradesperson on apprentices, e.g. "Go fetch some elbow grease from him." Each tradesperson will say someone else has the elbow grease and send the unwitting apprentice on to another master tradesperson. The snipe hunt will continue until the apprentice gives up, catches on or runs out of people/places to search.[dubious ]

In the United States Navy, the "Elbow Grease" prank has a practical purpose. It requires collusion between senior petty officers and the Supply Department. A young sailor is given an official supply requisition for "Grease, Elbow" by his supervisor. The supply clerks send him from one store room to another on the ship, then the last store room clerk informs the sailor that he just yesterday issued the last tub of "elbow grease" to the engine room. The sailors in the engine room tell him that they only needed a little of the stuff, and that the signal bridge needed the rest of it, so they gave it to the signal bridge. By the time the sailor figures it out, he's had a complete tour of his (or her) ship.[dubious ]

Appearances in popular media[edit]

  • The prank was used in the popular web series Red vs. Blue where two of the Red soldiers tell their new recruit to go fetch "Elbow grease and headlight fluid" from the store. Their prank backfires when the recruit instead asks for the enemy's flag from the enemy's recruit, mistaking the other base for the store.
  • GMC's advertisement for their heavy duty vans and trucks shows a few men failing to move a small boulder. Frustrated and defeated, at once a GMC van backs onto the scene with the surprise of the men upon discovering several large barrels of elbow grease in the rear of the van.

Equivalents in other languages[edit]

French has the exact same expression: Huile de coude.

Italian: Olio di gomito

See also[edit]