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The meaning and origin of the expression: Blood, sweat and tears

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Blood, sweat and tears

Meaning

Hard work and effort in difficult circumstances.

Origin

The expression 'blood, sweat and tears' is usually said to have been coined by Sir Winston Churchill in his famous "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech in 1940, when he warned the British people of the hardships to come in fighting WWII. Each country seems to have a shortlist of people to whom they attribute colourful quotations that lack an accredited author. In the USA the sage of choice is Mark Twain; in Ireland, Oscar Wilde and in England, Winston Churchill. However, it wasn't Churchill who coined 'blood, sweat and tears' - ultimately it is has a biblical source.

The first occurrence of the expression that I can find in print is in Sermons on Various Subjects by Christmas Evans, translated from the Welsh by J. Davis, 1837:

Christ the High Priest of our profession, when he laid down his life for us on Calvary, was bathed in his own blood, sweat and tears. 

Evans, a.k.a. 'The John Bunyan of Wales' (25 December 1766 - 1838) was an eccentric but widely admired preacher. We can't now be sure if it was he who coined the phrase or his translator. Either way, we can be sure that the phrase was in the language by 1837.

Christmas Evans knew the Bible by heart and was no doubt influenced in his choice of words by this passage from The King James Bible, Luke 22:44:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

The French and Italians, also Christian nations, have their own versions of the phrase - 'suer sang et eau' (sweat blood and water/tears) and 'lacrime e sangue' (blood and tears).

Churchill, although no great theological scholar, borrowed 'blood, sweat and tears' for his famous wartime speech and can certainly take the credit for the popular take-up of the phrase into everyday language.

Blood, Sweat and TearsAl Kooper picked up on the phrase as the name for his new jazz-rock band in 1967. Kooper could hardly have known how apt a choice it was. The band has gone through more disagreements, sackings and changes of direction than most, with at least 140 musicians having been members at some point.

Many of the things Churchill is supposed to have said are wrongly attributed. One of the better ones that can be verified is his exchange with the socialite and politician Nancy Astor:

Astor: Winston, if I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!
Churchill: And if I were your husband I would drink it.

For many years my favourite 'Churchillism' has been a supposed reply to an unwelcome letter which has all the hallmarks of the man's work:

"Dear Sir, I am in the smallest room in the house and your letter is before me. Very soon it will be behind me."

In fact, I have been under a misapprehension. The originator of the quotation was the German composer Max Reger, who was responding to a savage review by Rudolph Louis, printed in Münchener Neueste Nachrichten in February 1906.