When You Need Some Elbow Room

In the city, I frequently drive by a tavern called the Elbow Room.  It always makes me smile, thinking about the meaning.  In English, elbow room is a place to spread out and be comfortable—maybe even a place to put your elbows up on the bar. 

It becomes even funnier when I remember the expression, “to bend a few elbows”–which means to have a few drinks.

In addition to these two expressions, there are a half-dozen others that include the word “elbow.” How many of these do you already know?

  • elbow grease
  • to elbow in 
  • elbow macaroni 
  • tennis elbow 
  • to rub elbows with 
  • sharp elbows 

To check yourself, check the list below to see the definitions of these expressions and read example sentences of each.

In checking the internet for this story, I discovered there are dozens of Elbow Room bars, taverns, and lounges across the United States. Clearly, this clever name has inspired more than just the owners of our local watering hole. The welcoming message for patrons across the country: “There’s room for you here!”


Did you know the meanings of the seven "elbow" expressions listed above?  Check yourself here!

Did you know the meanings of the seven "elbow" expressions listed above?  Check yourself here!

  • elbow room = space to spread out and be comfortable
     If we’re going to work comfortably, let’s find a conference table with enough elbow room.
  • to bend elbows = to have some (alcoholic) drinks
     Honey, I’m going out with the boys to bend a few elbows.
  • elbow grease = extra work or physical effort
     To get this old jalopy ready for the antique car show, we’re going to need a lot of elbow grease.
  • to elbow in = to assertively enter, to force one’s way into a space
     They elbowed their way into the crowd to get a better view of the accident.
  • elbow macaroni = slender noodles with a bend in them
     Mac & cheese is usually made with elbow macaroni.
  • tennis elbow = inflammation, pain, or tearing of the tendon inserting into the elbow from the upper arm
     I had to quit playing racquetball for six months because of a bad case of tennis elbow.
  • to rub elbows with = to associate with (possibly sitting next to and drinking with)
    She has been known to rub elbows with some pretty influential people in this town.
  • sharp elbows = physical toughness or aggressiveness
     Retired Red Wings hockey player, Gordie Howe, used to be called Mr. Elbows.
     In a 2010 pickup basketball game at the White House, President Obama caught a sharp elbow on the lip and needed 12 stitches.

Historical Note: Did you know that the “ell” is an old-fashioned unit of measurement? It corresponded to the length of a man’s forearm from fingertips to elbow. Elsewhere, it extended up to the shoulder and was used primarily in tailoring to measure fabric.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.