The Grammarphobia Blog

An ax to grind

Q: When I was in high school in the West Indies, my English teacher explained that “to have an ax to grind” meant to have a favor to ask. But when I came to the US, I found that people here used the expression to mean to have an ulterior motive. An Internet search for the origin of the phrase has left my completely confused. Could you clarify its meaning and origin?

A: The expression, which originated in the United States in the early 19th century, has slightly different meanings in the US and Britain, but neither one matches your high-school memory. Perhaps you misheard or misunderstood your English teacher.

In the US, the expression means to have a selfish or ulterior purpose, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which reflects British usage, defines it as to have a strong opinion that leads you to do something.

As for the origin of the expression, no wonder you’re confused. There’s a lot of confusing information about it out there, especially on the Internet.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example, attributes the expression to Benjamin Franklin and traces it to an incident involving him as a boy. The youngster, according to Brewer’s, was conned by a slick-talking man into sharpening an ax for him.

But Brewer’s doesn’t say where the story comes from, and I haven’t found any source that can locate the expression in Franklin’s writings. Besides, the story seems fishy to me. Brewer’s says the man supposedly “had no time to turn the grindstone,” but he had time to stand around watching young Ben do it for him.

The Oxford English Dictionary also says the phrase originated with Franklin, but the OED‘s first published citation is not from Franklin. It’s from another Pennsylvanian, Charles Miner, a Connecticut-born essayist and newspaper editor.

An essay by Miner, which the OED dates from 1815, recounts the tale of a boy who gets conned into turning the grindstone for someone who wants his ax sharpened. (A note in Bartleby.com says Miner originally published this essay in 1811, but I’ve read elsewhere that Miner first published it anonymously in 1810.)

So how did the expression “an ax to grind” get attributed to Franklin instead of Miner?

I’m guessing here, but Miner’s story is similar to one Franklin did write, about a child who pays more than he should for a whistle. And Franklin’s autobiography does have an anecdote about an ax (though it doesn’t include the expression).

Also, Miner’s writings were gathered into a book called Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe, published in 1815, while some of Franklin’s writings were gathered in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Perhaps the similarity of Poor Richard to Poor Robert, along with the likeness between the boy with a whistle and the boy with a grindstone, led to the misattribution of the phrase “an ax to grind” to Ben Franklin.

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