The phrase blood, sweat, and tears means: great effort or suffering that is involved in a task or project.
The current usage of this phrase seems to have stemmed from the speech that the British statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965) delivered to the House of Commons on Monday 13th May 1940; he had just replaced Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) as Prime Minister and warned that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”:
On Friday evening last I received His Majesty’s Commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition. I have completed the most important part of this task. […]
[…] In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length to-day. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those 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 long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will 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. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.
The expression used by Winston Churchill in that speech rapidly came to be shortened as blood, sweat, and tears—a form that had long existed (read below). For example, the following is from Christianity Never Meant To Be Just Sociable, by ‘Agricola Ora’, published in the Mercury and Herald (Northampton, Northamptonshire, England) of Friday 7th June 1940:
We, in our allegiance to God, should wake up to realise that Christianity was never meant to be a pleasant and sociable form of existence—as so often, judging by our churches, it has become—but a warfare, as our very hymns proclaim. And warfare demands blood, sweat and tears, as our Prime Minister reminded us.
Likewise, the following is from the Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Friday 7th June 1940:
Work for Model Makers
Over 100 technical institutions have already responded to the appeal made last week by the Board of Education to assist in the war effort by using their workshops for the production of gauges and other fittings for use in the armament industry. One provincial institution has already made gauges to the value of £1,600, and production is to be extended. To ensure the fullest use of these workshops the Board are now asking amateur model makers, who are willing to assist during their spare time in the evenings and at week-ends, to offer their services. I understand that there will be arrangements for payment on an equitable basis, but probably most model makers will find their best reward in undergoing a small share of the “blood, sweat, and tears” which the Prime Minister has told us must be the price we have to pay for victory.
Although the current use of blood, sweat, and tears seems to have arisen from the speech delivered by Winston Churchill on 13th May 1940, the phrase is older. Churchill himself had used it in Spain’s Future: What Will the Dictators Do?, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Thursday 23rd February 1939:
Spain has had its war. Some say a million lives have been lost in a population none too large for the historic land in which they dwell. None of those on either side, generals or Republicans, ever meant this hideous thing to come upon their country. It burst upon them with all the astounding force of an explosion.
After that everyone had to choose his side, bend his head, and butt into the storm. There are moments in the story of every country when catastrophic frenzy may sweep all men off their feet.
Then comes the Sword. Civil war is opened. The tolerances of life take flight; thousands fall in battle: thousands of others are shot against the wall, or basely murdered in the ditch. Feuds innumerable are lighted; scores are added up which can never be paid.
But at length regular armies come into the field. Discipline, organisation grips in earnest both sides. They march, manœuvre, advance, retreat, with all the valour common to the leading races of mankind. But here are new structures of national life erected upon blood, sweat, and tears which are not dissimilar, therefore capable of being united.
Winston Churchill had already used the metaphor in The Eastern Front (London, 1931), the fifth and final volume of The World Crisis, a historical account of the First World War:
These pages recount dazzling victories and defeats stoutly made good. They record the toils, perils, sufferings and passions of millions of men. Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain.
Winston Churchill was not the only one to use the phrase in the 1930s. It appeared for example in Good Blood Wasted. The Anti-War Novel (London, 1933), by G. E. Thresher—according to the review published in the Nottingham Journal (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) of Wednesday 29th March 1933:
In the author’s prefatory note he says: “. . . do not waste your time with this book unless you care to visualise such offensive subjects as destruction, blood, sweat, and tears.”
On Friday evening an open-air meeting was held at Sandy under the auspices of the Mid-Beds. War Aims Committee. Mr. C. Herbert Lindsay, one of the speakers, said Germany was asking us to meet in conference, to shake hands and let bygones be bygones. Before we could accept that hand, reeking with the blood not only of our forces but the blood of civilians and merchant service men, they must repent and bring forth genuine evidence of their sorrow. We could not accept that hand until it had been washed in its own blood, sweat and tears of contrition.
But, in actual fact, the metaphor goes back to the early 17th century. The English poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) wrote this in An Anatomy of the World. Wherein, by occasion of the vntimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented (London, 1611):
Shee, shee is dead; shee’s dead: when thou knowst this,
Thou knowest how drie a Cinder this world is.
And learnst thus much by our Anatomy,
That ’tis in vaine to dew, or mollifie
It with thy Teares, or Sweat, or Bloud: no thing
Is worth our trauaile, griefe, or perishing,
But those rich ioyes, which did possesse her hart,
Of which shee’s now partaker, and a part.
The Scottish poet and pamphleteer William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) also used the image in the chapter The History of the Reign of James the first of The History of Scotland from the year 1423. until the year 1542. Containing the Lives and Reigns of James the I. the II. the III. the IV. the V. With several Memorials of State, during the Reigns of James VI. & Charls I. (London, 1655):
All Good-men with these proceedings of the King were well pleased; for if Princes could keep their own, and that which justly belongeth unto them, they could not be urged to draw such extraordinary Subsidies from the blood, sweat, and tears of their people.
But it seems that it was during the 19th century that the expression gained currency. It was, for example, used in an article lambasting the ideas of the German nationalist author Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), published in The Examiner (London, England) of Sunday 1st December 1816:
The name of freedom startles him like an evil conscience; and shoots across his brain like sudden madness. The thought that all men (himself among the rest) are not born the property of kings, inspires him with a canine rage, a horror amounting to hydrophobia. He is persuaded himself, and would persuade others, that there is but one evil in the world, Liberty, and but one good, Despotism. […] He would exterminate thirty millions of men for […] not swearing ready, romantic allegiance to a power […] that treats men like dogs, and tells them it has a right from heaven to do so, that brands them as felons respited during pleasure, that assigns them whips and drudgery as a gracious boon, that makes them wear the badge of slavery on their bodies and their minds, that farms out their blood, their sweat, their tears, to its underlings or the best bidder.
The English poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) used the metaphor in The Age of Bronze; or, Carmen Seculare et Annus haud Mirabilis [cf. note] (London, 1823), a satire on the Congress of Allied Powers at Verona in 1822, the year after Napoléon’s death:
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle—why? for Rent!
Year after year they voted cent. per cent.
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions—why? for Rent!
A person signing themself ‘W. R. S.’ used Byron’s expression in a letter published in Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (Exeter, Devon, England) of Saturday 2nd April 1831:
The Irish large landed proprietors, and also with as much justice the English Lords, who possess such immense tracts in that island which they never see, should be made subject to the payment of a heavy poor rate. Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions, are extorted annually from their unfortunate vassals, to be expended and lavished away from them.
On Friday 2nd March 1838, the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) quoted the American women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Angelina Grimké (1805-79) as using the image in an address to “the Legislative Committee, in the Representatives’ Chamber, on the subject of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia”:
“I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth, by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being, endowed with precious and inalienable rights, which are correlative with solemn duties and high responsibilities; and as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crimes, built upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.”
The American statesman Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, used the phrase in a speech that he delivered when he formally opened the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, on Wednesday 2nd June 1897—as reported by The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) of 3rd June 1897:
“Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of the perils over which in the past the Nation has triumphed; because of the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.”
The following cartoon by Cargill depicts European civilisation as a drowning person, with only one hand still above the surface; the caption is Blood, and Sweat, and Tears!. This cartoon was published in many U.S. newspapers from 27th May to 10th June 1940, for example in the Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) of Friday 31st May, where it was accompanied by the following editorial—the use of blood, (and) sweat and tears in both the caption and the editorial may be unrelated to Winston Churchill’s above-quoted speech:
The number of soldiers, innocent children and widowed mothers who have been riddled with bullets and left to die on European battlefields and road wayside has been appalling.
Europe’s civilization is being swallowed by warfare.
Blood, sweat and tears have reaped a terrible harvest.
It will be centuries before the world recovers from the present conflict.
Note: The Latin subtitle carmen seculare et annus haud mirabilis can be translated as a secular hymn and a year by no means miraculous. The first part is a reference to Carmen Sæculare, composed by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC), at the command of the Roman emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), to be sung at the secular games. The second part alludes to Annus Mirabilis, the title of a poem composed by the English poet, critic and playwright John Dryden (1631-1700) about the events of the year 1666.
Horace was a poet of the Augustan period, i.e., of the reign of Augustus. John Dryden was an author of the English Augustan age, during which literature was of a style considered refined and classical. Byron, therefore, positions his poem within the English Augustan tradition while depreciating the present in contrast to that tradition: the “age” is one of “bronze”, and the year is “by no means” a “miraculous” “year”.