Ax vs. axe

A woodsman wants to split some logs. What tool should he use—an ax or an axe? By the way, if you are a non-woodchopping type, please be informed that the device in question is an instrument with a sharp blade at the end of a handle. How do you spell the name of the instrument? If you look in the dictionary, you will find both ax and axe. What’s the difference?

Here’s a tip: Axe is the most common spelling of this word.

Ax and axe are different spellings of the same word. There is no difference in meaning or pronunciation. However, you might be surprised by all the possible meanings these two spellings share. The Merriam-Webster lists three primary definitions besides the cutting tool. Axe also refers to a hammer with a sharp edge for dressing or spalling stone. Musical instruments, such as guitars and saxophones, are also axes. As a verb, axe means the abrupt removal of something. You’ll recognize that meaning in the phrase, “get the axe” which sometimes refers to a dismissal, such as someone being fired from their job.

Do you know any other phrases that contain axe? How about “an axe to grind?” People often use the expression when they have a complaint: I have an axe to grind with you! In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin relates a story about a man who asked a smith to sharpen his axe. He eventually ends up turning the grindstone himself, thus sharpening his own tool. Whether the story connects directly to the idiom is uncertain, but later, another author published a similar story with the expression “an axe to grind.” In this story, axe refers to a selfish ulterior motive.

When I see a merchant, overpolite 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.
Who’ll Turn Grindstones? published anonymously

Not all axes are used to chop down trees. Historically, battle axes were weapons for hand-to-hand combat. Warriors also launched them at their enemies from a distance. Do you remember the cruel character Miss Agatha Trunchbull from the book (or film) Matilda? This ferocious school administrator punished one girl by swinging her around in a circle by her pigtails. Was she a battle-axe? This term is sometimes applied to women who are seen as angry or controlling, but many consider it to be offensive.

He emerges as a genuinely likeable guy—the opposite of his battle-ax of a mother—who always cast a wry eye on the world’s follies.
Concrete Expressionism; David Anfam on De Kooning: An American Master, David Anfam

Outside of the United States, you are most likely to encounter the longer spelling—axe. But you will see axe in American English fairly frequently. Many dictionaries say that “ax” is the most common spelling in this country. You will find the shortened form even in compound names such as pickax and poleax. However, according to Garner’s Modern English Usage, axe is actually about twice as common as ax. The plural form of ax (and axe and axis) is axes. Did you know that axe, spelled with or without an E, was such a versatile word?

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