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.

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