Linguistic musings

Axes seem to hold a special place in the collective consciousness of English speakers. Why is it, exactly, that we speak of axe murderers (usually in the context of “I’m not an…”), but we don’t attach the weapon of choice to the descriptions of other murderers? One never speaks of a knife murderer, or a gun murderer, or a blunt-instrument murderer…

90 thoughts on “Linguistic musings

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lizzy_Borden

      “Lizzie Andrew Borden[1] (July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was a New England spinster who was the central figure in the axe murders of her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the United States. The slayings, subsequent trial, and the following trial by media became a cause cΓ©lΓ¨bre, and the fame of the incident has endured in American pop culture and criminology. Although Lizzie Borden was acquitted, no one else was ever arrested or tried, and she has remained notorious in American folklore. Dispute over the identity of the killer or killers continues to this day.”

      • Almost forgot:
        “The case was memorialized in a popular jump-rope rhyme:
        Lizzie Borden took an axe
        And gave her mother forty whacks.
        And when she saw what she had done
        She gave her father forty-one.

        The anonymous rhyme was made up by a writer as an alluring little tune to sell newspapers even though in reality her stepmother suffered 18[6] or 19[4] blows, her father 11. “

      • Sorry that was supposed to be an ironic reference to the phrase marred by the fact that someone beat me to the comment. But thank you anyways for the info link.

      • That can’t be it entirely. Other lead instrument players use the term “axe”, too, especially saxophonists.

        They could just be taking the term from guitarists, though.

        • I can’t speak for the saxophonists out there, but having watched far too many rock stars destroy guitars on stage, it’s pretty apparent how they got nicknamed axes πŸ˜‰

          • *shudders* Yeah, I suppose that’s true.

            Now that I think of it, a guitar neck is an awful lot like an axe handle. It could be fun to design a guitar with an axehead-shaped headstock.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lizzy_Borden

    “Lizzie Andrew Borden[1] (July 19, 1860 – June 1, 1927) was a New England spinster who was the central figure in the axe murders of her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the United States. The slayings, subsequent trial, and the following trial by media became a cause cΓ©lΓ¨bre, and the fame of the incident has endured in American pop culture and criminology. Although Lizzie Borden was acquitted, no one else was ever arrested or tried, and she has remained notorious in American folklore. Dispute over the identity of the killer or killers continues to this day.”

  2. Almost forgot:
    “The case was memorialized in a popular jump-rope rhyme:
    Lizzie Borden took an axe
    And gave her mother forty whacks.
    And when she saw what she had done
    She gave her father forty-one.

    The anonymous rhyme was made up by a writer as an alluring little tune to sell newspapers even though in reality her stepmother suffered 18[6] or 19[4] blows, her father 11. “

    • A “sniper” is a special kind of gun murderer. The word refers more to the characteristic style of gun use than to the gun itself; not all gun murderers are snipers. So I don’t think it qualifies.

        • Okay, a bomber is one who uses a bomb, though we don’t usually talk about “bomb murderers.” Presumably, linguistically speaking, a bomber is still a bomber even if his bomb fails to kill anyone, though we only speak of “axe murderers” who actually succeed in killing their victim(s).

          • I suppose that suicide bombers generally succeed at killing at least someone (themselves), but that’s not exactly murder. πŸ™‚

  3. Sorry that was supposed to be an ironic reference to the phrase marred by the fact that someone beat me to the comment. But thank you anyways for the info link.

    • Follow your nose, it always knows the flavor of death where ever it goes,
      Terror in the supermarket, shoppers are in horror,
      Shredded boxes in the aisles, corpses on the floor,
      Those who ran, this joy is mine, now they’re going to pay,
      Super gory slaughter now the order of the day!
      Toucan Son of Sam!!
      Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.
      Follow your nose, it always knows the flavor of death where ever it goes,
      Orphaned at the age of five, parental guidance missed,
      Rice Crispies wouldn’t talk to him and he got really pissed,
      The remittal chemicals have driven him insane,
      Now we know the calling like it’s ringing ’round his brain,
      Toucan Son of Sam!
      Snap! Crackle! Pop!
      Toucan Son of Sam!
      Part of your nutritious breakfast!

  4. That can’t be it entirely. Other lead instrument players use the term “axe”, too, especially saxophonists.

    They could just be taking the term from guitarists, though.

  5. Follow your nose, it always knows the flavor of death where ever it goes,
    Terror in the supermarket, shoppers are in horror,
    Shredded boxes in the aisles, corpses on the floor,
    Those who ran, this joy is mine, now they’re going to pay,
    Super gory slaughter now the order of the day!
    Toucan Son of Sam!!
    Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.
    Follow your nose, it always knows the flavor of death where ever it goes,
    Orphaned at the age of five, parental guidance missed,
    Rice Crispies wouldn’t talk to him and he got really pissed,
    The remittal chemicals have driven him insane,
    Now we know the calling like it’s ringing ’round his brain,
    Toucan Son of Sam!
    Snap! Crackle! Pop!
    Toucan Son of Sam!
    Part of your nutritious breakfast!

  6. I can’t speak for the saxophonists out there, but having watched far too many rock stars destroy guitars on stage, it’s pretty apparent how they got nicknamed axes πŸ˜‰

  7. *shudders* Yeah, I suppose that’s true.

    Now that I think of it, a guitar neck is an awful lot like an axe handle. It could be fun to design a guitar with an axehead-shaped headstock.

  8. “Axe Murderer” is a predominately English expression, though the idea carries over to other languages. French, for example, uses the phrase “fou meurtrier” which just equates “mad killer”. But the phrase is not so colloquial that if you were to literally translate it that it wouldn’t make any sense. (At least in many languages)

    “Axe Murder” is considered to be murder that is done harshly, with no other desire than to have the person dead. “But!” you might say, “To murder somebody is harsh, is to want them dead. That’s the point of ‘murder’, isn’t it?”

    There are many reasons why somebody might want to kill another person. Some of those reasons can be quite peculiar (love, for example, or empathy). They aren’t *all* in “harsh, cold-blooded” environments. You would not find the phrase “axe murderer” attached to somebody who died via poison.

    The axe is a great demonstration of it. You have to cause quite a mess to hatch somebody to death. (Well, we’re going to assume you actually did hatch them to pieces and didn’t just conk them over the head with the axe, or something like that.) It’s grueling, messy, atrocious, and usually results in leftover pieces.

    The reason the axe gets a category all its own is… basically, there aren’t a whole of different ways to axe somebody to death. There’s many ways to use a knife (hell, if truly motivated, I suppose I could spork somebody to death.) and there are a million emotions potentially attached to it. Likewise with a gun, though it does get the special verb “shot”. The axe is also useful for things other than killing people – such as chopping wood.

    The word “axe” dates way, way, way back (first appearing in English in the early 1300s), making appearances in Old English, Proto-Germanic, even Gothic. One of its ancestors is “aeces”, so it’s no surprise that “ace” and “axe” have found similar meanings. (And ironically, opposite meanings!)

    In the early 1800s there was an essay written that introduced the phrase “an axe to grind” (it was a literal meaning at the time, and the context of the story introduced the feeling of contempt), and it kind of stuck. Today you can say the phrase “I have an axe about” and people will understand what you mean. The phrase “axe” in relation to musically instruments dates back to 1955, with the saxophone.. the guitar came along about a decade later.

    Consdering the use of “axe”, it’s not surprising that it also took along the meaning “to get eliminated/fired”, especially in the context of the workplace. This dates back to about the 1920s. But I bet if you hopped in your time machine and told great-great-great-grandpa in the mid 1800s that you’d been axed from your job, he’d know what you meant.

    And by the way, “blunt-instrument murderer” does have its own word: whacked. “To whack” somebody originally correlated to a thunk over the head/neck with a blunt instrument. Though “whacker” doesn’t quite have the same effect, unless you’re talking about weeds.

    And of course you can axe-murder somebody without the aid of an axe. It now means to kill somebody in complete cold blood, with little regard for who that person is. In theory, if you break into a house and discover somebody there, and you kill them (even something not terribly messy – say you shot them), that’d be axe-murder. It is not necessarily a serial killing, though historically most axe murderers have been serial killers. (You know, after you kill one person….)

  9. “Axe Murderer” is a predominately English expression, though the idea carries over to other languages. French, for example, uses the phrase “fou meurtrier” which just equates “mad killer”. But the phrase is not so colloquial that if you were to literally translate it that it wouldn’t make any sense. (At least in many languages)

    “Axe Murder” is considered to be murder that is done harshly, with no other desire than to have the person dead. “But!” you might say, “To murder somebody is harsh, is to want them dead. That’s the point of ‘murder’, isn’t it?”

    There are many reasons why somebody might want to kill another person. Some of those reasons can be quite peculiar (love, for example, or empathy). They aren’t *all* in “harsh, cold-blooded” environments. You would not find the phrase “axe murderer” attached to somebody who died via poison.

    The axe is a great demonstration of it. You have to cause quite a mess to hatch somebody to death. (Well, we’re going to assume you actually did hatch them to pieces and didn’t just conk them over the head with the axe, or something like that.) It’s grueling, messy, atrocious, and usually results in leftover pieces.

    The reason the axe gets a category all its own is… basically, there aren’t a whole of different ways to axe somebody to death. There’s many ways to use a knife (hell, if truly motivated, I suppose I could spork somebody to death.) and there are a million emotions potentially attached to it. Likewise with a gun, though it does get the special verb “shot”. The axe is also useful for things other than killing people – such as chopping wood.

    The word “axe” dates way, way, way back (first appearing in English in the early 1300s), making appearances in Old English, Proto-Germanic, even Gothic. One of its ancestors is “aeces”, so it’s no surprise that “ace” and “axe” have found similar meanings. (And ironically, opposite meanings!)

    In the early 1800s there was an essay written that introduced the phrase “an axe to grind” (it was a literal meaning at the time, and the context of the story introduced the feeling of contempt), and it kind of stuck. Today you can say the phrase “I have an axe about” and people will understand what you mean. The phrase “axe” in relation to musically instruments dates back to 1955, with the saxophone.. the guitar came along about a decade later.

    Consdering the use of “axe”, it’s not surprising that it also took along the meaning “to get eliminated/fired”, especially in the context of the workplace. This dates back to about the 1920s. But I bet if you hopped in your time machine and told great-great-great-grandpa in the mid 1800s that you’d been axed from your job, he’d know what you meant.

    And by the way, “blunt-instrument murderer” does have its own word: whacked. “To whack” somebody originally correlated to a thunk over the head/neck with a blunt instrument. Though “whacker” doesn’t quite have the same effect, unless you’re talking about weeds.

    And of course you can axe-murder somebody without the aid of an axe. It now means to kill somebody in complete cold blood, with little regard for who that person is. In theory, if you break into a house and discover somebody there, and you kill them (even something not terribly messy – say you shot them), that’d be axe-murder. It is not necessarily a serial killing, though historically most axe murderers have been serial killers. (You know, after you kill one person….)

  10. I’ll bet that if the chainsaw ever becomes a fashionable murder weapon, we’d talk about “chainsaw murderers.” But the chainsaw isn’t such a good instrument for impulsive killing: you first have to gas it up, and then it usually takes three or four yanks on the cord to get it started, by which time your intended victim has already called the cops and fled to his brother-in-law’s house.

  11. I’ll bet that if the chainsaw ever becomes a fashionable murder weapon, we’d talk about “chainsaw murderers.” But the chainsaw isn’t such a good instrument for impulsive killing: you first have to gas it up, and then it usually takes three or four yanks on the cord to get it started, by which time your intended victim has already called the cops and fled to his brother-in-law’s house.

  12. For some reason, that reminds me of “Unusually Ruthless” Reuben from Jagged Alliance. They call him “Ruthless” because he wiped out his family with a cordless hedge trimmer. They call him “Unusually Ruthless” because he recharged the appliance twice before he finished! – ZM

  13. You’ve reminded me of another one.

    If you drink and run someone over with a car, it’s an alcohol-related incident.

    But, if you drink and shoot someone with a gun, it’s a gun-related incident.

    I’m not sure what it says about our priorities in demonizing things, but I’m willing to see which way the social outcry will fall if I drink and eat WAY too much cotton-candy.

  14. You’ve reminded me of another one.

    If you drink and run someone over with a car, it’s an alcohol-related incident.

    But, if you drink and shoot someone with a gun, it’s a gun-related incident.

    I’m not sure what it says about our priorities in demonizing things, but I’m willing to see which way the social outcry will fall if I drink and eat WAY too much cotton-candy.

  15. Its a middle ground.

    The axe has the sharp edge of the sword, but the power of the hammer. Its good for separating, but the blunt force is also a possibility. Unlike a sword, an axe has enough power to do serious damage, even through armor. Unlike a hammer, it can penetrate whatever blocks it.

    • Re: Its a middle ground.

      You know, I actually have a replica of a Medieval battle ax, which I use as a sex toy. It’s heavy (about six pounds) and would take a tremendous amount of brute upper-body strength, or adrenaline, or both, to use in combat, but at close range I can see where it would make for a fearsome weapon.

      The problem is the “at close range” part. The haft is only about six inches long; you’d have to get way up close and personal to use it, and if your opponent had a longsword or (worse yet) a polearm or a spear, well, you’d be kinda screwed.

      • Re: Its a middle ground.

        Yes, but with the battle axe, you won’t survive a hit. You can take a glancing shot from a sword. And for the axe, that’s a hand axe, best used in pairs or with a shield. A battle axe has a longer handle, so generates more power. A fight won’t last long, but its power vs speed.

          • Re: Its a middle ground.

            Its a power weapon. I don’t think you go for it unless you can call Arnold a wimp πŸ˜›

            And I think its for show. The real ones used for combat weren’t that heavy, for the most part.

  16. Its a middle ground.

    The axe has the sharp edge of the sword, but the power of the hammer. Its good for separating, but the blunt force is also a possibility. Unlike a sword, an axe has enough power to do serious damage, even through armor. Unlike a hammer, it can penetrate whatever blocks it.

  17. Interesting

    I vote for messiness and a crazed drive to kill.

    There is no way to kill with an axe without making a mess. This imparts a certain disregard for self-control and planning to axe murderers, implying as well serious unrestrained insanity.

    Also: Knife and gun users kill because they carry deadly weapons. These weapons impart a certain preparedness to the killing, a certain love of efficiency. Axe murderers (so the assumption goes) grab the first thing that will do the job and handle the kind of abuse they wish to mete without breaking before their maniacal energy fades.

    • Re: Interesting

      Knife and gun users kill because they carry deadly weapons. These weapons impart a certain preparedness…

      Um. I’ll accept the rest of that paragraph, but “because” seems to imply a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. In fact, I’d think it’d be the other way around — murderers using knives or guns presumably carry those weapons because they intend to murder (or at least seriously harm) someone with them.

  18. Interesting

    I vote for messiness and a crazed drive to kill.

    There is no way to kill with an axe without making a mess. This imparts a certain disregard for self-control and planning to axe murderers, implying as well serious unrestrained insanity.

    Also: Knife and gun users kill because they carry deadly weapons. These weapons impart a certain preparedness to the killing, a certain love of efficiency. Axe murderers (so the assumption goes) grab the first thing that will do the job and handle the kind of abuse they wish to mete without breaking before their maniacal energy fades.

  19. I looked up “Axe Murderer” on Wikipedia, and there was no page dedicated to it. However, I found some amusing search results…

    So I Married an Axe Murderer
    Relevance: 100.0% – –

    Axe Murder Boyz
    Relevance: 60.6% – –

    Axe Murder Incident
    Relevance: 60.4% – –

    Michael Richards
    Relevance: 52.4% – –

  20. I looked up “Axe Murderer” on Wikipedia, and there was no page dedicated to it. However, I found some amusing search results…

    So I Married an Axe Murderer
    Relevance: 100.0% – –

    Axe Murder Boyz
    Relevance: 60.6% – –

    Axe Murder Incident
    Relevance: 60.4% – –

    Michael Richards
    Relevance: 52.4% – –

  21. πŸ˜€

    I can’t help it; I’m a linguist and he posted linguistic musings. If I don’t explain it in full I’m going to mull over for several days in a row until I quietly explode.

  22. Re: Interesting

    Knife and gun users kill because they carry deadly weapons. These weapons impart a certain preparedness…

    Um. I’ll accept the rest of that paragraph, but “because” seems to imply a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. In fact, I’d think it’d be the other way around — murderers using knives or guns presumably carry those weapons because they intend to murder (or at least seriously harm) someone with them.

  23. A “sniper” is a special kind of gun murderer. The word refers more to the characteristic style of gun use than to the gun itself; not all gun murderers are snipers. So I don’t think it qualifies.

  24. Re: Its a middle ground.

    You know, I actually have a replica of a Medieval battle ax, which I use as a sex toy. It’s heavy (about six pounds) and would take a tremendous amount of brute upper-body strength, or adrenaline, or both, to use in combat, but at close range I can see where it would make for a fearsome weapon.

    The problem is the “at close range” part. The haft is only about six inches long; you’d have to get way up close and personal to use it, and if your opponent had a longsword or (worse yet) a polearm or a spear, well, you’d be kinda screwed.

  25. Re: Its a middle ground.

    Yes, but with the battle axe, you won’t survive a hit. You can take a glancing shot from a sword. And for the axe, that’s a hand axe, best used in pairs or with a shield. A battle axe has a longer handle, so generates more power. A fight won’t last long, but its power vs speed.

  26. Okay, a bomber is one who uses a bomb, though we don’t usually talk about “bomb murderers.” Presumably, linguistically speaking, a bomber is still a bomber even if his bomb fails to kill anyone, though we only speak of “axe murderers” who actually succeed in killing their victim(s).

  27. Re: Its a middle ground.

    Its a power weapon. I don’t think you go for it unless you can call Arnold a wimp πŸ˜›

    And I think its for show. The real ones used for combat weren’t that heavy, for the most part.

  28. how about –

    FRONT
    ‘if you axe me, I say she was framed’

    BACK
    LIZZIE BORDEN FAN CLUB

    FRONT
    I just gave myself 40 whacks… and loved it.

    BACK
    Lizzie Borden Fan Club.

    FRONT
    Lizzie… a true hacker before her time.
    BACK
    Lizzie Borden Fan Club

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