Q&A: The origin of “bury the hatchet”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, where does “bury the hatchet” come from…

Q: Hi AWC, where does the term “bury the hatchet” come from? Chop chop!

A: You’re referring to the phrase that Macquarie Dictionary describes as “to make peace”. Merriam Webster elaborates a little, defining it as “to settle a disagreement; become reconciled”.

Q: That’s the one.

A: An example might be, “it was time for them to bury the hatchet and start working together again”.

Q: Sure. And I get that covering your sharp pointy weapon with dirt is one way to show you mean no harm, but it must have a backstory.

A: It does. Let’s quickly take a look at the etymology of “hatchet” first. It came to English around 1300 from Old French “hachete” – a small combat-axe. It wasn’t until the 1680s when the Native American peacemaking custom of literally burying a tomahawk was first recorded.

Q: Bury the tomahawk!

A: That’s right. A tomahawk is essentially just a smaller, lighter version of a hatchet. The custom would later become figurative, entering the English language in 1754 as “to lay aside instruments of war, forget injuries and make peace”.

Q: But it’s possible there are thousands of tomahawks buried across America?

A: It’s possible there are.

Q: What about other hatchet terms like “hatchet man” or “hatchet job”?

A: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “hatchet-man” emerged in the 1880s gold rush days California as slang for “hired Chinese assassin”. This would later be extended figuratively in the 1940s to journalists who attacked the reputation of a public figure. Their handiwork was known as a “hatchet job”.

Q: Cutting someone to pieces with words! 

A: Yep.

Q: And the ‘Hachette’ global publishing house which was founded in France – is that related to the hatchet? Perhaps the skill at which they cut manuscripts from their pile or bury them in the ground?

A: Haha, no. It is French but has a different pronunciation – similar to “uh-shet” – and is named for its founder Louis Hachette, who set up the company in 1826. Fun fact – the surname actually predates the axe meaning – going all the way back to the 1200s.

Q: I’m sure if your manuscript was rejected, you’d “have an axe to grind” – where does THAT phrase come from?

A: That one is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but it can squarely be traced back to a specific essay written in 1810 by American editor and politician Charles Miner. In his essay, he writes of a man who flatters a boy and gets him to do the chore of axe-grinding for him, then leaves without offering thanks or recompense.

Q: So the boy had an axe to grind about not being paid for grinding the axe?

A: That’s right. He will have at least had a few sharp words for the man.

Q: Hilarious. What about getting the axe from your job?

A: To be given the axe – or “get the chop” dates back to 1922. 

Q: Chop chop!

A: Actually, “chop chop” – meaning to be quick – dates back to the mid-19th century, a pidgin English term based on Chinese dialect kuaì-kuaì – relating to chopsticks!

Q: So to recap on my original question – burying the hatchet was an actual Native American tradition for making peace and went on to become figurative for the same thing. 

A: That’s it. Axe-cellent work!

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