An Axe to Grind (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "An Axe to Grind"?

The term "an axe to grind" means a grievance against someone. It usually appears as "to have an axe to grind." In other words, "to have an axe to grind" means to have a reason to act against someone due to a historical dispute.
An Axe to Grind (Origin)
This saying most likely originates from an essay called "Who'll Turn Grindstones?", which was written in 1810 by Charles Miner, editor of Pennsylvania's "The Gleaner and Luzerne Advertiser." His essay features the saying "to have an axe to grind."
  • "When I see a merchant over-polite to his customers, begging them to taste a little brandy and throwing half his goods on the counter, thinks I, that man has an axe to grind."

Competing Theory

"To have an axe to grind" originates from a story told by Founding Father of the United States Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), in which a man is tricked into turning a grindstone to brighten an axe.
  • "Like the Man who in buying an Ax of a Smith my Neighbor, desired to have the whole of its Surface as bright as the Edge; the Smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the Wheel. He turn'd while the Smith press'd the broad Face of the Ax hard & heavily on the Stone, which made the Turning of it very fatiguing. The Man came every now & then from the Wheel to see how the Work went on; and at length would take his Ax as it was without farther Grinding. No, says the Smith, Turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet 'tis only speckled."
Note that the US spelling is "ax," although "axe" is also used in America. Also, note that the common nouns in this text (e.g., Man, Ax, Neighbor) were written with capital letters.

Detractors of this origin highlight that Franklin's reference to axe-grinding does not feature the words "an axe to grind" and does not directly frame the axe-grinding in terms of a grievance.

Competing Theory

The term "an axe to grind" with a meaning related to holding a grievance originates from James Joyce's "Ulysses," which was published in 1922.
  • "Skin-the-Goat, assuming he was he, evidently with an axe to grind, was airing his grievances in a forcible-feeble philippic anent the natural resources of Ireland or something of that sort which he described in his lengthy dissertation as the richest country bar none on the face of God's earth..."
  • (James Joyce was an Irish writer who lived 1882-1941. "Skin-the-Goat" was the nickname of James Fitzharris (1833-1910), a member of the Dublin-based "Invincibles," who were a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.)

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What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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