Have an Axe to Grind

Also:
Have no axe to grind
with an/no axe to grind
without an axe to grind

Meaning of Idiom ‘Have an Axe to Grind’

To have an axe to grind means to have a hidden personal and often selfish motive for one’s behavior; to have a hidden opinion or a hidden agenda1Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995. ,2Bengelsdorf, Peter. Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples]. N.p.: Amz Digital Services, 2012.


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Usage

The variation ‘have no axe to grind’ is used as often as ‘have an axe to grind.’ However, it is difficult to know which variation, the negative or the positive, should be considered the core form. The word have or with is always used and axe to grind, by itself, is meaningless.

Examples Of Use

“I just want to help you if I can. I don’t have an axe to grind.”

“I came here to support your cause with no axe to grind.”

“It turned out the hacker was an ex-employee with an axe to grind. He wanted to undermine the company by casting doubt on the security of the software.”

“All the newspapers have their own political axe to grind.”

Origin

Used since the 1800s, this chiefly American idiom is said to have come from a story told by Benjamin Franklin, who said:

“When I was a little boy I remember one cold winter morning I was accosted by a smiling man with an axe on his shoulder. “My pretty boy, said he, ‘has your father a grindstone?” “Yes, sir,” said I. “You are a fine little fellow,” said he. “Will you let me grind my axe on it?” Pleased with the compliment of the fine little fellow, “Oh, yes,’ I answered, “It is down in the shop.” “And will you, my little fellow,” said he, patting me on the head, “get me a little hot water?” Could I refuse; I ran and soon brought a kettle full. “How old are you and what’s your name?” continued he. Without waiting for a reply; “I am sure you are one of the finest little fellows that I ever saw–will you turn just a few minutes for me?” Tickled at the flattery, like a fool I went to work, and bitterly did I rue the day.

It was a new axe, and I toiled and tugged till I was almost tired to death. The school bell rang and I could not get away; my hands were blistered, the axe was sharpened, and the man turned to me with, “Now you little rascal, you’ve played truant; send for school, or you’ll rue it.” Alas” thought I, it is hard enough to turn the grindstone this cold day, but to be called a little rascal was too much. It sunk deep in my mind, and often have I thought of it since. When I see a merchant over-polite to his customers, begging them to take a little brandy, and throwing his goods on the counter, thinks I that man has an axe to grind. When I see a man flattering the people, making great profession of attachment to liberty, who is in private life a tyrant, methinks, look out, good people, that fellow would set you turning a grindstone. When I see a man hoisted into office by party spirit, without a single qualification to render him respectable or useful, alas! deluded people, you are doomed for a season to turn the grindstone for the party.”

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Sources   [ + ]

1. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995. 
2. Bengelsdorf, Peter. Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples]. N.p.: Amz Digital Services, 2012