The Many Meanings of “Sweat”

By Maeve Maddox

Sweat is one of those Old English words that has dwindled in meaning since Anglo-Saxon times. Back in those sword-swinging times, sweat mean “blood.”

By Middle English times sweat had acquired its modern meaning of “perspiration.”

In addition to its current literal meaning, sweat enjoys a rich figurative life:

sweat of one’s brow
This expression comes from Genesis 3:19:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

The expression has been used with a legal meaning in discussions of copyright law: “the effort expended in labor, and the value created thereby.”

sweat equity
value added to a house by means of the unpaid labor of owner or tenant.

sweatshirt
“a collarless long-sleeved pullover made of cotton jersey with a smooth-finished face and a heavily napped back” –Merriam Webster

sweat pants
athletic pants made of the same fabric as a sweatshirt

sweatband/sweat-band: can be either the band of leather or other material that forms the lining of a cap, or a band of terry cloth or other absorbent material worn around the head to absorb perspiration.

sweat bee
a bee attracted to the salt in human perspiration

night sweats
Excessive sweating during sleep. Medical term: Sleep hyperhidrosis

sweat shop
a small factory that does not conform to local standards of safety, sanitation, length of workday, or payment.

sweat lodge
an enclosed area heated by steam from water poured on hot stones; used especially by American Indians for spiritual and/or health purposes.

sweater girl
a model or actress who wears tight-fitting sweaters for publicity photos. The first “sweater girl” was Lana Turner.

no sweat
This idiom means “no problem.”
“Can you fix this wretched computer for me?”
“No sweat,”

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6 Responses to “The Many Meanings of “Sweat””

  • mailav

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  • Robyn Broyles

    Don’t forget the very casual idiom “Don’t sweat […],” which means “Don’t worry about […]” and the related “Don’t sweat it,” meaning “You’re welcome.”

    Don’t sweat the small stuff. (Don’t worry about details.)
    Don’t sweat that project right now; we’ll work on it later together.

    “Hey, thanks for your help.”
    “Don’t sweat it.”

    And here’s another one I thought of… “to break out in a cold sweat,” meaning “to feel anxious,” often meaning social anxiety:

    Just thinking about asking her on a date made him break out in a cold sweat.

    I’m just calling on my knowledge as a native speaker of American English here. Do your dictionaries agree with me? How about other native English speakers?

  • Maeve

    Robyn,
    All useful additions to the list.
    Thanks.

  • Roberta B.

    I think the expression “No sweat” (shown above as “no problem” for the speaker) also could be related to the interpretation above by Robyn. It’s a reply to the Questioner – “Don’t sweat it” or “Don’t (you) worry about it.” I’m also a native speaker of American English.

  • Peter

    Except for this:

    sweat shop
    a small factory that does not conform to local standards of safety, sanitation, length of workday, or payment.

    The word is most often used, IME, for a (usually large) factory that far exceeds local standards in all of those things, but doesn’t meet US standards. (E.g., Nike’s shoe production in Vietnam a few years ago)

  • JC

    Let’s not forget sweating pipe; that is to say soldering copper plumbing with a blowtorch. Usually in the attic. In midsummer.

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