Folk Speech – Haverford, Pennsylvania

Elbow Grease:

“I was at my friend’s house and we had dinner and they always had to do the dishes, the mom made them do chores. They didn’t have a maid or anything like that. After dinner, my friend went to do the dishes and I said I would help. I was with a sponge at the sink wiping a pot and her mother saw me and said ‘you have to use some elbow grease on that’ and I looked under the sink trying to find it said ‘where do you keep it?’”

This story symbolizes my mother’s ignorance towards anything domestic. Growing up, my mother was privileged and had a maid to clean up after her and her five siblings. “Elbow grease” is a common term used to emphasize the forceful way in which someone performs a laborious task, usually involving scrubbing and cleaning. However, my mother Linda thought that elbow grease was an actual physical object, perhaps a cleaning agent.

Her ignorance shows that she was not used to putting “elbow grease” into much of anything, as she had people to do that for her. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my mother had an African American maid and driver. Though it is not to say that she was stuck up. She did, after all, offer to help with the dishes.  Perhaps she even had cleaned dishes before, but was unfamiliar with the term “elbow grease”.

The term is a folk saying that originated some time in the mid 1600’s. I tried to research its origins and only found one questionably credible source that gives

multiple theories for the use of the term. says that elbow grease may have originated as another word for sweat. Another theory the website provides is that perhaps the word comes from the fact that if joints are not moved, they become stiff. But if they are in motion, the synovial pads in the elbow joints produce lubrication, or “elbow grease”.

No matter where the term derived from, this story shows how the lifestyle was for privileged kids growing up in suburban Philadelphia, which is my hometown (my mother never moved out). I must say that I can relate to her, as growing up I too was privileged to have someone working for me that cleaned the dishes. When I got to college, however, I am now forced to use “elbow grease” to clean my own dishes, although the dishwasher does most of the work.


“Where Does the Term, Elbow Grease Come From?” EduQnA. 2007. 30 Apr. 2008 <>.