Another idiom pertaining to “the wheel” is the phrase “put one’s shoulder to the wheel”.
Unlike it is with “put your hands on the wheel,” which is the steering wheel of automobile, this wheel refers to the wheels of a wagon as pulled by, for example, horses.
Horse-pulled carts and wagons have seen better days as a vehicle for transport, suggesting the phrase itself must be aged and old. It is. By definition, “putting one’s shoulder to the wheel” means putting in a great effort in order to accomplish a difficult task.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one puts their shoulder to the wheel of a wagon “so as to extricate the vehicle from the mire.” Picture the image.
I infer from theOxford explanation that the origin of this phrase might very well be from ancient Greece, or Aesop’s Fable to be exact, for one of Aesop’s proverbs depicted this very image. The tale of Hercules and the Waggoner reads:
A Waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” he asks. But Hercules appeared to him, and said: “Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up andput your shoulder to the wheel.”
The gods help them that help themselves.
Well, you get the message, I hope (wink).
Sightings (or citings) of the phrase are often seen in classic English literature.
This, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:
Mr Dedalus pushed his plate over to Stephen and bade him finish what was on it.
“Now then, Stephen”, he said. “You mustput your shoulder to the wheel, old chap. You’ve had a fine long holiday.”
“O, I’m sure he’ll work very hard now”, said Mrs Dedalus, “especially when he has Maurice with him.”
“O, Holy Paul, I forgot about Maurice”, said Mr Dedalus. “Here, Maurice! Come here, you thick-headed ruffian! Do you know I’m going to send you to a college where they'll teach you to spell c.a.t. cat. And I’ll buy you a nice little penny handkerchief to keep your nose dry. Won’t that be grand fun?”
Maurice grinned at his father and then at his brother.
This, from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy:
ARABELLA was preparing breakfast in the downstairs back room of this small, recently hired tenement of her father's. She put her head into the little pork-shop in front, and told Mr. Donn it was ready. Donn, endeavouring to look like a master pork-butcher, in a greasy blue blouse, and with a strap round his waist from which a steel dangled, came in promptly.
“You must mind the shop this morning,” he said casually.
“I’ve to go and get some inwards and half a pig from Lumsdon, and to call elsewhere. If you live here you mustput your shoulder to the wheel, at least till I get the business started!”
“Well, for to-day I can’t say.” She looked deedily into his face. “I’ve got a prize upstairs.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“A husband – almost.”
“Yes. It’s Jude. He’s come back to me.”
“Your old original one? Well, I’m damned!”
“Well, I always did like him, that I will say.”
“But how does he come to be up there?” said Donn, humour-struck, and nodding to the ceiling.
“Don’t ask inconvenient questions, Father. What we’ve to do is to keep him here till he and I are – as we were.”
“How was that?”
And this, from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault”
And then by a return on his former subject, he conceived a spark of hope. “This Master Hyde, if he were studied,” thought he, "must have secrets of his own; black secrets, by the look of him; secrets compared to which poor Jekyll’s worst would be like sunshine. Things cannot continue as they are. It turns me cold to think of this creature stealing like a thief to Harry's bedside; poor Harry, what a wakening! And the danger of it; for if this Hyde suspects the existence of the will, he may grow impatient to inherit. Ay, I mustput my shoulder to the wheelif Jekyll will but let me,” he added, “if Jekyll will only let me.” For once more he saw before his mind’s eye, as clear as a transparency, the strange clauses of the will.