macabre grammar

Posted on: Fri, 05/06/2011 - 22:11 By: Tom Swiss

Over on Facebook, our good friend Molly Griest pointed out the linguistic curiosity that if you whack somebody with an ax, you are an "ax murderer", but if you use anything else you're just "a murderer".

This got me thinking. It seems to me that we'd say "an ax murderer", and maybe refer to "a poisoner", but almost never "a strangler" -- "the Boston strangler" or suchlike, yes, but not so much "a strangler". You'd never say "a strangulation murderer" or "a poison murderer". "A shooter" or "a gunman" doesn't necessarily mean a killer, and you don't say "a gun murderer". You'd almost never say "a stabber" and certainly not "a knife murderer".

Or so it seems to my ear. But why speculate when we can actually examine how people actually use certain phrases? It's Google-fu time! Here are the number of hits on various murderous phrases. To keep the comparisons fair I've included the "a/an" in each search, so that we're not including "Boston strangler", for example:

  • "an ax murderer": 157,000
  • "a poisoner": 77,300
  • "a poison murderer": 9
  • "a strangler": 103,000. But, results for strangler figs show up on the first page. If we adjust our search to cut those out ("a strangler" -fig): 75,000
  • "a strangulation murderer": 0
  • "a gun murderer": 2,240. Though two of the top results are about this topic of how people use "ax murderer" and not "gun murderer"!
  • "a knife murderer": 19,800. As with "a gun murderer", top results also include discussion of how rare this phrase is.
  • "a stabber": 11,800. But the first several hits are about a class of spaceship in the game EVE Online.
  • "a baseball bat murderer" : 8
  • "a bow murderer": 6
  • "a crowbar murderer": 1

I'm surprised that "a knife murderer" comes in higher than "a stabber". But in the end, there's no doubt about it -- despite their rareness, ax murderers get people talking in a way that no other murderers do. (That is, by the way, not a suggestion. Just to be clear.)

There is something universal and manly about axes. Until not many generations ago, almost every head of a family anywhere in the world would have been using an ax regularly. When ax murdering, one wields not only the ax, but the patriarchy and the power of everyday life since times immemorial?

Or maybe it's just the ease of picturing what damage an ax could do...