Axe to Grind


When we have an ax to grind (1810), there’s a hidden motive or personal grievance behind our actions. Though often attributed to Ben Franklin, the phrase originated in a story by Charles Miner. In it a stranger dupes a gullible boy into turning a grindstone for him through flattery. The lad worked hard until the school bell rang at which point the man, instead of thanking the boy, scolded him for being late.

The ax I would grind is the sexism in the language. The battle-ax was once part of the standard equipment of a soldier of the 11th century, a fearful weapon fastened to the wrist by a chain. Firearms made it obsolete, but it continued to intimidate. Initially it described any irritable person. Soon, however, it was used solely for women. The old battle-ax was quarrelsome, unattractive, and domineering; the subject of male comedians (early 20thC.) whose stock in trade was ridiculing middle-aged wives.

Men love to talk about women; more so than women do about men. The battle-ax is long gone, but men continue to speak of women as a cut above or a cut below, a cut being a “higher degree or stage.”  Perhaps it’s time to finally give such behavior the ax.



Reports are that New York City has scored a major victory over street crime. Thanks to the Latin vincere, vici, victi, “to conquer,” it has also created victims and led its mayor to think he is invincible. American jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence. For a criminal to be convicted he has to be caught dead to rights (Mid 19thC.), his guilt established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Dead has an air of finality about it, making things absolute and irreversible. The rights in the phrase are nothing more than past slang for  “at once.” In New York City, what’s dead are the rights of Black males and in too many instances, the men themselves.

A finding of guilt should be a lead-pipe cinch, not just successful but certain. The cinch is a belt-like strap used to secure the saddle on a horse. When properly tightened, it keeps the saddle from slipping out from under the rider. The lead pipe underscores the certainty from when plumbing was best done with lead pipes as opposed to those of cast-iron. What’s material here is the conviction from convincere (con, “with), “to overcome with arguments,” the beli