The Grammarphobia Blog

I’m glad you axed

Q: I gotta axe you this question: What’s the origin of the wonderful pejorative “battleaxe”? (“Battleaxes” are always “old,” aren’t they?)

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says “battle-ax,” meaning “a quarrelsome, unattractive, old, or domineering person; specif. a combative, domineering old woman,” can be traced to late-19th-century America.

It was first used, according to Random House and the Oxford English Dictionary, in George Ade’s novel Artie (1896): “Say, there was a battle-ax if ever you see one. She had a face on her that’d fade flowers.”

It’s an expression with staying power. Here’s a more recent usage, from Punch (1959): “Though slim as an arrow / A girl can wax / In the course of time / To a battle-axe.”

Battles, it seems, have loomed large in slang terms devoted to unpleasant women, whether old or young. Similar terms for such harpies (most of these are from Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang) were “battleship” (late 19th century), “battler” (1900s), “battle-cruiser” (1910s), and “battle wagon” (1940s).

The original “battle-ax,” the kind used in hand-to-hand combat, made its first appearance as an English phrase in about 1380, according to the OED.

Here’s the citation, from a medieval Scottish poem about the deathbed advice left by Robert the Bruce for the defense of his kingdom: “… bow, and spier, / And battle-axe, their fechting gear.”

And, by the way, it wasn’t always wrong to “axe” for something. If you don’t believe me, check out this blog item.

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