The red-headed lady of the house wasn’t in any mood to be sassed. Today was cleaning day and already, the servants were revolting. Especially that young loud-mouthed one. The tow-headed boy appeared once again in her presence, this time with a complaint that he knew would do the trick. “Every single one of us has tried to clean that spot and it just won’t come out. Can’t we just move on to something else?”
The woman hadn’t lived to her advanced age (all of thirty-six or so) without learning a thing or two about cleaning. She grabbed the scrub brush which the youngster was holding and marched over to the bucket, dipping it a time or two into the sudsy water. Kneeling down and holding tightly to the handle, she plopped the brush onto the floor and, bearing down, began to scrub. Magically, the stain, which “every single one” of the unpaid staff had attempted to remove, was gone when she again lifted the brush from the surface.
“Wow!” The boy’s voice was a mixture of awe and disappointment. Awe, because he really had tried to remove the stain himself before offering the complaint; disappointment, because he now realized that he would have to continue with the unhappy chore. “How did you do that?”
The lady’s answer was limited to just two words–two words which didn’t clarify the issue at all for him.
“Elbow grease.” She dropped the brush into the water again, stood up and demanded, as she headed back to her command station in the living room, “Now, use some yourself and get back to work!”
It took another hour or two, but the floor was spot free and ready for the wax, which the next crew was to apply. The fun part of the job, polishing the floor by sliding on it in stocking feet, would come hours later.
The boy was still curious, so he headed for her location. Approaching the recliner in the living room, the question on the tip of his tongue was blurted out. “Mom, what is elbow grease?”
She muttered something about it just being hard work and using the muscles that God had given to you. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer, but it was all he was likely to get. He headed out for the orange trees to snag one or two of the brilliantly colored and sugar-sweet spheres off the low-hanging branches and promptly forgot about the subject.
But, I still want to know. What is elbow grease?
Oh, I’ve heard about the jokes played on young apprentices; the journeymen telling them to get a container of the stuff for them, only to laugh at their naivety as they seek for it earnestly, like someone searching for the non-existent snipe in the forest. I’ve used the term myself for years, to mean just what my mother indicated…hard work. But the word-nerd in me wants to have a definitive answer. Where did this obscure phrase come from? What strange brain concocted such a term?
As it happens, the answer is so simple, I should have thought of it myself. One has only to go to the “New Dictionary of the Canting Crew”, published in 1699, to find the meaning. The Canting Crew refers to ruffians and thieves, the real source of slang and street language in those ancient days. The entry therein for elbow grease reads thus: “Elbow grease, a derisory term for sweat.” There is nothing further.
Sweat. Of course!
When you do physical work in your shirt sleeves, you perspire and the sweat runs down the smooth surface of your upper arms to your elbows, lubricating them, almost annoyingly so. Elbow grease. As happy as I am to finally have the answer, I am embarrassed that I couldn’t work it out for myself long ago. Ah, well. Ofttimes the answer stares us in the face for a lifetime and we still don’t discern it. I now know it, anyway. I am content.
As my father-in-law used to say, in his quirky manner, “Well, I learned something new today. Now, I can go back to bed.”
I’m thinking tonight about how important elbow grease is to our lives. Oh, we have labor saving devices, better lubricants, and stronger cleaning agents, but we still have to, every once in awhile, find the elbow grease and just power through the task in front of us. Life wasn’t intended to be easy, we weren’t meant to achieve easy victories. Sometimes, we have to scrape the paint or scrub the sidewalk, with nothing but a basic tool and our muscle.
We work up a sweat and get the job done. Two things happen when we do that.
First, we learn that hard work gets the job done. It’s not about talent, or good looks, or our social station. Hard work pays off.
Second, we have that feeling that nothing else can inspire in us; the feeling of achieving our goals for ourselves. I would call it pride, only some wit will retort that “pride goes before a fall” and try to take away the God-given sense of accomplishment. This is a different sort of pride, the sort that leads to more hard work, and more achievement. I’m thinking that it is indeed, a good thing.
The young man stood in front of me at the music store the other day, showing me his sore fingers. He had his guitar with him and wanted me to repair it. “It hurts my fingers when I play,” was the complaint.
I examined the guitar, finding it to be properly adjusted, with a set of strings which were well suited to the beginning student. I handed it back to the boy and said, almost hardheartedly, “It’s supposed to hurt your fingers when you play. Keep working at it.”
You see, the only way to become a guitar player is to work through the discomfort and the softness of disuse, developing calluses on the tips of the fingers. Practice, practice, practice isn’t only a phrase in a joke, it’s the way of life for any aspiring musician. Hard work…elbow grease, is required for any achievement worth talking about.
I’m not sure, but it is possible that the words the Creator spoke to Adam, as his punishment was meted out for disobedience in the Garden of Eden, could be paraphrased from “By the sweat of your brow…” to “Everything you need to accomplish to live on this earth will be done with elbow grease.” I finally comprehend the red-head’s words, nearly fifty years later.
Couldn’t quite conquer that problem that faced you yesterday? Try it again today, only this time, use a little more elbow grease. You’ll get it done. I’ll keep working, too.
Let’s bear down! There is still a lot to accomplish.
“By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
“Both tears and sweat are salty, but they render a different result. Tears will get you sympathy; Sweat will get you change.”
(Jesse Jackson~American civil rights leader)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.