Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 24

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Blood, Sweat, and Tears

In 1940, Winston Churchill, newly appointed Prime Minister of England, needed to prepare the nation for forthcoming hardships as the war with Germany increased in scope and size. He reminded the members of Parliament that England had already committed resources in Norway and Holland, and asked pardon for not standing on ceremony:

I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.

From there the shortened form - blood, sweat, and tears - entered the English lexicon and became a visceral expression for when some great project had taken everything from you.

I like this idiom because of just how vivid it is. After all, the three bodily fluids in question represent a whole host of human experience: blood is life and life force, sweat is exertion and effort, and tears, well, tears relates to just about every emotional state available to use: sadness, pain, frustration, sure, but also, joy, happiness, and happy-sad, like at a wedding.

What I think is interesting is how watered-down it has become. Churchill wasn't the first person to use the phrase - some writers trace it back to biblical times, or at least biblical writing, while others go for more recent usages that never-the-less predate Churchill's - but he used it in, arguably, its most apt context. In the face of war, that there would be blood, sweat, and tears is inarguable, and that he was willing to give his for the war effort commendable.

So, when I say that I just finished cleaning my balcony and it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, the context is, perhaps, slightly less weighty than that of England in 1940.

A lot of idioms get watered down. It's part of how particular phrases become idioms, after all. (In fact, in this week's Lexicon Valley, host John McWhorter talks about this very topic in the context of how curse words become less and less offensive over time.) In this case, though, I don't think it's through a lessening of effort or situation weight as much as it is that it's just too good a phrase not to use. No matter the situation, no matter whether there was any literal bodily fluid shed, exertion is in the mind of the doer.

This goes back to the idea that everyone's problems are real to them; no matter what a person's situation may look like to us, on the outside, from their position, the problem is as real and as anxiety or stress-inducing as our problems may be to us. This is among the many reasons we should all be more empathetic towards our fellow man, if for no other reason than that they'll be more understanding when our problems feel overwhelming and insurmountable to us even though they may appear trivial to everyone else.

In other words, everyone's perspective is their own and the only way we have to communicate our perspective is through flimsy, momentary, incredibly fragile bits of sound we call words. But, put enough of them together the right way and someone, somewhere, just might understand how much of yourself you've put into a project, be that a good kitchen-scrubbing or an international war effort. So, do yourself a favor and be willing to really listen when someone invokes their blood, sweat, and tears.

Origins:

It's hard to know how to classify this particular phrase. It's not quite an idiom as it is not really divorced from its literal meaning. You could, if you really wanted to, shed real blood, sweat, and tears while working on something. It's also not quite a proverb or axiom as it's not a full sentence, nor does it have any advice contained within it. So, I'm going with phrase, that most boring of expressions that does not conform to any one genre as it contains all expressive genres within itself.

That said, here are some definitions:

MacMillan Dictionary Online:

a lot of effort and hardwork

Collins Cobuild:

If you refer to something as involving blood, sweat, and tears, you mean that it is a very hard thing to do and requires a lot of effort.

(Note: Idioms vs. Proverbs)

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Notable Events of the Year 1940:

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Spining Wheel:

If I’m being honest, I didn’t know anything about Churchill’s use of blood, sweat, and tears until well after college. Before that, the most famous use of the phrase I knew was that it was the name of a band from the 60s who had a couple of good songs and one really great one. Here it is:

Next time: The devil and the deep blue sea. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.