The word for the tool one might use to chop down a tree has been variously spelled both as ax and as axe since the Middle Ages. The 1611 King James Bible uses the axe spelling (“the axe is laid unto the root of the trees,” Luke 3:9) as does the 1623 first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays (“Thou cut’st my head off with a golden Axe, / And smilest upon the stroke that murders me,” Romeo and Juliet, III, 3), while John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674)describes “Bands / Of Pioners with Spade and Pickax arm’d.” Samuel Johnson entered the word as axe in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, but the American lexicographer Noah Webster preferred the simpler ax on etymological grounds, and he entered the word under that spelling in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, with a dismissive note to the effect that it is “improperly written axe”; other American lexicographers followed suit, and to this day most American dictionaries enter ax, giving axe as a variant spelling. (In British English, axe remains the predominant spelling.)
Though the change in dictionaries didn’t immediately kill off axe—Henry David Thoreau wields an “axe” in Walden (1854), as does the Tin Woodman in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)—the ax form became dominant in American print media by the early 20th century: Robert Frost’s 1934 poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” refers to “the weight of an ax-head poised aloft,” for instance, and in Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop we are told that “All the wood used in making tables and bedsteads was hewn from tree boles with the axor hatchet.” This dominance may be partly due to the influence of copyeditors, who rely on dictionaries as their authority for the preferred spelling of words.
In popular usage, meanwhile, axe has remained widespread in unedited prose, even in the United States. Based on Internet searches for typical phrases such as “swung the ax[e],” “a sharp ax[e],” and so on, it appears that the axe spelling is predominant on blogs, on Facebook pages, and on commercial websites—Home Depot and Wal-Mart will be happy to sell you an axe, but if you go to their websites wanting an ax your options will be much more limited. Mike Myers’s 1993 film comedy is titled So I Married an Axe Murderer, not So I Married an Ax Murderer.
So what does this mean for us as dictionary editors? In principle we (like the editors at all major dictionaries) are committed to recording the way the English language is actually used, as opposed to how we feel it ought to be used. But actually used by whom? The millions of people who prefer ax, and who have most American English dictionaries on their side? Or the even larger group of those to whom axe looks perfectly normal, regardless of what lexicographers and copyeditors prefer? Faced with this dilemma, we’ve decided to pass the question on to our Usage Panel. In our 2013 ballot we’re asking the panelists which spelling they themselves prefer. Their response will help us to determine whether to enter the word at axe, with ax as a variant, or to continue to show axe as a variant at ax.
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