The Grammarphobia Blog

Bird play

Q: What is the origin of the unfortunate phrase “to kill two birds with one stone”? I do use it by habit, but I catch myself every time I say it.

A: We think you’re being overly sensitive about this. The expression is rarely used literally. In fact, the phrase was used figuratively when it first showed up in writing in the 1600s and it has generally been used that way ever since.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as a proverbial phrase meaning “to accomplish two different purposes by the same act or proceeding.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1655-56 exchange of views about free will between the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the Anglican Bishop John Bramhall: “T. H. thinks to kill two birds with one stone, and satisfy two arguments with one answer.”

However, we’ve found an earlier example in A Complete History of the Present Seat of War in Africa Between the Spaniards and Algerines, a 1632 book by an author identified on the title page as “J. Morgan Gent.”

The gentleman writes that a Berber military chief “came resolved to kill two Birds with one Stone, return the Spaniards their Compliments, and conduct his insolent Turks, where he was certain at least some of them would be knocked on the head.”

We’ve seen quite a bit of speculation online that the expression originated in other languages—Latin, Greek, Chinese, and so on—but we’ve seen no evidence that English borrowed the usage.

A typical theory is that the expression originated with Ovid, but the closest example we’ve found in the Roman poet’s writing is the scene from Metamorphoses where Tiresias strikes two copulating snakes with a stick and is transformed into a woman.

Many online “experts” believe the usage originated in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, who escaped from the Labyrinth on Crete by making wings and flying out, according to Greek mythology.

Daedalus supposedly got the feathers to make the wings by killing two birds with one stone. However, neither Ovid nor Appolodorus, the principal sources of the myth, say anything about how Daedalus got the feathers.

In the 1600s, when the expression arrived in English, one sense of the word “bird” was a game bird, especially a partridge, according to the OED. And one sense of the term “stone” (or “gunstone”) at that time was a bullet.

A more likely explanation is that the expression was influenced by one that appeared nearly a century earlier: “to stop two gaps with one bush.”

The OED defines the earlier usage as “to accomplish two ends at once” or (you guessed it) “to kill two birds with one stone.”

The first citation for this usage is from John Heywood’s 1546 collection of proverbs: “I will learne, to stop two gaps with one bushe.”

And, with that, we’ll stop.

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