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Battle-Axe: Use at Your Own Risk

This term for a fierce woman is widely considered sexist, but some people say it may not be so. Transcript of radio broadcast:

I'm Susan Clark with the Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.


Jane Smith is president of a large sales company in a city on the American West Coast. For years her company has made large profits. It has done well, even during bad economic times.

Miss Smith pays her workers well. She gives them many holidays. And last year, she increased the company's payments for employees who could not work because of sickness.

You probably think that Miss Smith's employees like her very much. But some do not. Some of her workers say she is a battle axe. They consider her a pushy, demanding woman.

A battle is an armed fight. And an axe is a tool for cutting trees. Word expert Christine Ammer says the two words were joined in the early nineteen hundreds. During those days, people began to call a fierce-acting woman a battle-axe. Soon the saying became popular.

In recent years, many women have protested the use of the word battle-axe. They say it is sexist. A comment or action that insults someone of the opposite sex is considered sexist.

But some people say calling a woman a battle-axe may not be an insult. Almost two thousand years ago, the Goths used battle-axes. The axes were very strong and sharp. They could cut through the heavy metal armor that Romans wore to protect themselves. The battle-axe permitted the Goths to win battles against the Romans. The Romans, at the time, were feared fighters.

So a woman who is a battle-axe may be a strong, sharp competitor in business. Many people praise men for being that way.

Sometimes employees believe their company leaders receive too much of the company's earnings. The employees suspect both men and women bosses of wanting too much money. Yet the leaders also bear the brunt of concern for the business.

What does this saying mean?

Bear can mean to carry. And brunt means the major part. To bear the brunt is to carry the major part of the responsibility for something.

The leaders of a company are responsible for how well the company does. Employees may work hard during the day. But most of them leave their work behind when they leave the office. The employer often works late and takes work home.

The saying, bear the brunt, was used as long ago as the fifteenth century. At that time, armies almost always stood in lines to fight. Naturally, those in the front lines took the major force of the battle. They bore the brunt of the fighting.

So, perhaps Miss Smith, our businesswoman in California, is doing a good job. She may be called a battle-axe. But she is bearing the brunt of the responsibility for keeping her company competitive.


This Special English program, WORDS AND THEIR STORIES, was written by Jeri Watson. This is Susan Clark.