origin of the phrase ‘to cut both ways’


The phrase to cut both ways means:
– of a point or statement: to serve both sides of an argument,
– of an action or process: to have both good and bad effects.

It refers to a sword which has two cutting edges, as is clear from its first known use, in Priest-Craft, its Character and Consequences. The Second Part (London, circa 1706), by Edmund Hickeringill (died 1708), Church of England clergyman and religious controversialist; A Satyr against Fame thus begins:

Fame, like a two-edg’d Sworddoes cut both ways,
And equally, doth praise Men, and dispraise,
Cæsar and Pompey were surnamed Great,
By Sycophants, and in their own Gazett,
Being great Butchers, they great Fame did get.

The following is an extract from a collection of puns relating to different trades that the Kentish Gazette (Canterbury, Kent) published on Friday 31st March 1797:


To the Printers,
Sirs,                                                                                                                                                   London, Thursday Evening.
To prevent all misrepresentation of what passed at the Common-Hall this day, I send you the opinions of the several Companies as they marched before me.
I am, your’s [sic],
                                   The Beadle at the Great Stand.
The ‘Merchant-Taylors’ conceived that this Hall could not ‘suit’ the purpose of those who requested it; and that it was not right to be always sticking in the ‘skirts’ of Ministers.
The ‘Coopers’ thought that every ‘tub’ should stand on its own bottom.
The ‘Shipwrights’ thought that although there might be a ‘leak’ in the vessel, the present crew were fully competent to ‘stop’ it.
The ‘Cooks’ never heard such a ‘mess’ of complaints, and thought the greater part of them ill ‘digested’.
The ‘Cutlers’ looked ‘sharp’ after such gentlemen whose arguments seemed to ‘cut’ both ways; and gave their votes in a very ‘blunt’ way.

The equivalent French phrase is être à double tranchant, literally to be of a double cutting edge.

It was originally une épée à deux tranchants, a sword with two cutting edges. The following definition is from the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française (5th edition – 1798):

On dit figurément, qu’Un mot, un raisonnement, une raillerie, est une épée à deux tranchans ; et on le dit, d’après Saint Paul, De la parole de Dieu, pour dire, qu’Elle frappe et atteint vivement jusqu’au fond de l’âme.
It is figuratively said, that A word, an argument, a gibe, is a sword with two cutting edges; and it is said, after Saint Paul, Of the word of God, to say, that It strikes and reaches sharply deep down into the soul.

This refers to The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, 4:12:

(King James Version – 1611)
For the word of God is quicke, and powerfull, and sharper than any two edged sword, pearcing euen to the diuiding asunder of soule and spirit, and of the ioynts and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

two-edged sword - Epistle to the Hebrews - King James Bible

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