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THE WORD

Hatchet job

DENNIS CAROTHERS, a reader from Needham, has a bone to pick with ax to grind. He's been hearing that idiom misused lately by TV commentators, he writes, "to mean something like `carrying a grudge."' For instance, when women began ratting out Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Los Angeles Times, just before the gubernatorial election, Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly noted that only two of the accusers had revealed their names -- "and both of them have axes to grind against him."

Well, no kidding. They had the same axes to grind as the unnamed women did -- they resented the harassment, which was the point of the story. O'Reilly didn't claim the women had "axes to grind" in the dictionary sense, that they had hidden agendas or political alliances that would compromise their credibility. No, he was using "axes to grind" in the newer sense Carothers picked up on, one not yet recognized by lexicographers. He meant they had a grudge to settle, just the opposite of a hidden agenda.

There's no dispute about the original sense of "an ax to grind." The phrase debuted, most authorities agree, in a tale by one Charles Miner published in a Pennsylvania newspaper in the early 1800s. The author recounts how a man with a dull ax flatters a boy into demonstrating his skills with a grindstone by sharpening the tool, at considerable effort and for no reward; the lesson is that one should be alert for concealed motives.

The official sense of "an ax to grind" is still "an ulterior motive," and in the negative, the phrase is usually understood this way. A person with no ax to grind is disinterested, in the purist sense of the word -- someone with no dog in the fight, no stake in the outcome of a conflict.

But the positive -- "having an ax to grind" -- increasingly means either "bearing a grudge" or "having a bone to pick" (a disagreement to chew over) with someone. Indeed, in the online Pocket English Idioms, at GoEnglish.com, Adam Sullivan supplies only the newer sense: "You have `an axe to grind' with someone when you are angry with that person and you plan to confront them."

And Sullivan's definition looks to be gaining ground. In recent newspaper citations, the senses of "an ax to grind" split evenly, with half meaning "a grudge," the other half "a stake." Though my sample is too small to be more than suggestive, 20 years ago the division was markedly different: "an ax to grind" meant "a stake, an interest" in three-fourths of the examples, "a grudge" in only one-fourth.

Carothers wonders if the ax metaphor has lost its edge because it was coined when "an ax was an everyday tool and sharpening axes was a trade, like blacksmithing." In the span between legendary axman Abe Lincoln and Jack Nicholson's mad hacker in "The Shining," has the ax's image mutated from rural logsplitter to horror-film headsplitter?

The history of the ax's smaller sibling, the hatchet, suggests otherwise, for hatchets were weapons well before Miner's parable saw print. George Washington said in 1753 that Indians had "taken up the hatchet" against the English, the Oxford English Dictionary records, and we first hear of burying the hatchet in 1794. So Charles Miner, though he predates the oeuvre of Mike Myers, would not have been baffled by the concept of marriage to an "ax murderer."

It's more likely, I suspect, that the "ax to grind" story is too subtle to keep straight. Compare the idiom "sour grapes," which, though based on a simpler story, has suffered a similar reversal: The fox in Aesop's fable, when he couldn't reach the grapes he wanted, walked away sniffing that they were undoubtedly sour. The moral? "It is easy to despise what you cannot get."

Today, though, to have "sour grapes" almost universally means you're a sore loser. Take John Powers's mention, in a recent Globe story, of the Red Sox's reaction to being outbid by the Yankees for Jose Contreras: " `Sour grapes,' sniffed [Yankees] GM Brian Cashman, after Sox owner John Henry complained about New York's unlimited budget." But if the Sox had sour grapes in the classical sense, they'd have claimed Contreras wasn't that good anyway.

The moral of our story? Metaphors will shift to mean what their users need them to mean, and though Charles Miner might object to being misinterpreted, Aesop would understand. As he admonishes in another fable, "Sorrow not over what is lost forever."

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