Let’s take a look at ax vs. axe. Both words refer to the long-handled tool with a heavy metal blade, and both axe and ax feature in metaphorical use in phrases like “ax/axe to grind” or “take an ax/axe to (something).” Ax and axe are used also as verbs for actions where an ax/axe is literally or metaphorically involved.
You may expect that ax is the spelling preferred in the U.S., and axe is the spelling favored elsewhere (as is also the case with several spelling variants), the situation with ax and axe is different.
The Historical Use of ‘Ax’
If Noah Webster would have gotten his way, the spelling divide would have been as it is with theater and theatre, color and colour, and draft and draught. Webster defined ax in his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language and included the note “improperly written as axe.” This was in direct opposition to A Dictionary of the English Language written by Samuel Johnson in 1755, which wasted no ink on the shorter form but included axe exclusively.
Webster preferred spellings that more closely reflected a word’s pronunciation, and if they were backed by origin, all the better. And Ax had both going for it: the “e” at the end of axe doesn’t do a thing, and none of the word’s predecessors—not Old English æcs, Latin ascia, the Old High German ackus, or really even Greek axinē argue well for axe as a spelling that’s more authentic to the word’s roots.
‘Axe’: The Reigning Champion
Despite Noah Webster’s firm belief on the matter, axe has triumphed as the prevalent spelling for most of the years since he declared the spelling to be improper. Ax had some strong years in the late 20th century, but evidence from multiple corpora shows that axe has once again prevailed as the 21st century progresses through its third decade.
Some significant publications in the United States prefer the shorter spelling: The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Time all favor ax over axe. But the longer form conquers overall.
It’s rarely possible to determine precisely why one spelling variant becomes more or less widespread. Still, people encounter that spelling more frequently whenever a particular spelling gets a cultural boost. It starts looking more and more like the “right” spelling—just as iz for is looks super odd (Noah Webster also lost that battle), so ax for axe starts to look a bit strange when you see axe more widely used. Ax was pulling ahead in the 1980s and 1990s. But then in 1993 the movie So I Married an Axe Murderer featured the more extended variant in its title. And in 2002, Unilever started marketing Axe body spray in the United States. We’ll never know precisely how these two cultural phenomena influenced the word’s spelling, but they likely had some effect.
No matter the reason, these days, if you have such an item to grind, you’d call it an axe if you prefer to use the more familiar spelling and an ax if you like to buck trends while grinding your axes.
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