The noun meat-ax(e) designates an implement with a heavy blade used for cutting meat, a butcher’s cleaver.
Of American-English origin, the phrases that are built on the pattern (as) [adjective] as a meat-ax(e) intensify the meaning of the adjective. This adjective can be savage, wicked, or mad.
The earliest occurrences of the phrase (as) savage as a meat-ax(e) that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From The Voyage, a story published in the Daily National Journal (Washington, District of Columbia) of Saturday 2nd April 1825—reprinted from the Barnstable Gazette:
The Secretary of the Governor […] stepped on board the yacht “as one having authority.” The Yankee marched up to him, “savage as a meat axe,” and asked his name and capacity—the reply was, “I am Secretary to the Governor of Bermuda.”
“I am, and I declare your vessel to be a good prize.” “Well,” replied the American Captain, “you are the very man I wished to see—have you a knife?” At this the dandy gentleman made a retrograde motion, to get out of the way of one whom he thought insane; but, on assurance that he should not be harmed, he, at arms [sic] length, presented him a penknife, with which the Yankee ripped open the top of his boot, and drew from thence a British license.
Note: Many U.S. newspapers reprinted this story up until 1831.
2-: From the New-Hampshire Statesman & Concord Register (Concord, New Hampshire) of Saturday 5th December 1829:
We like the spirit of Elder Boodey’s appeals, in his own behalf, in relation to the approaching vacancy in the Sheriffalty of Strafford. This is the second of the series—and ought to ensure the Elder a more favorable reception than we apprehend he will meet from the tribunal competent to decide on his application for office. If his practice would be certain to correspond with his professions (and the Elder we take to be a man of his word) we can warrant him the support of all reflecting Deputy Sheriffs, or candidates for deputation—and we believe, moreover, that the people at large will look favorably upon his pretensions—for, however dark and designing the Elder may in times past have seemed to us, we believe him when he gives the assurance he is a man of tender and compassionate feelings, and far from being savage as a meat axe, or any such thing.
3-: From the Eastport Sentinel (Eastport, Maine) of Wednesday 7th July 1830:
“Savage as a Meat-axe.”—The following is a copy of a challenge sent by one butcher to another in Augusta, Geo.
“To Mr. ——
Sir,—I feel myself aggrieved at the illegal reports you have said about my beef. I, therefore, challenge you in combat at 4 o’clock this afternoon, at swords, pistols, or fistesses.
4-: From the Westchester Herald and Putnam Gazette (Mount Pleasant, New York) of Tuesday 7th September 1830:
From a “down east” paper.
“Some boys, or grown up blackguards are in the habit of stealing peaches and other fruit in the night. They may get wounded, for I would not hesitate giving such a charge of small shot,—but I wish them to be informed of the law in this case.”
Verily, Mr. Editor, we should think a county Spy might show the “very age and body” of the rascals, and that an Editor’s — would do as well as “small shot” or the “law’s long arm.” “Savage as a meat-axe,” say we peacable [sic] folks.
5-: From the Martinsburg Gazette and Public Advertiser (Martinsburg, West Virginia) of Thursday 21st October 1830:
Jefferson Election.—[…] On the eve of the election in Jefferson, that county was flooded with hand-bills, containing charges of the basest calumny against the political character of Mr. Barton, which caused a great commotion among the people. It devolved on Mr. B. to repel these charges and clear up his character—this he did do—We say, that Mr Barton has honorably acquitted himself of the foul charges, to the entire satisfaction of every unbiassed mind—this he done [sic] in a neat and handsome address to the voters—after he concluded, a gentleman from Frederick, (the getter-up of the bills, and one of the signers to the same,) got up on a seat in the court house, and looked as savage as a meat-axe, observed, that he wished to propound a question to Mr. B.—he remarked, that he had understood that Mr. B had used his name in a disrespectful manner on the preceding Friday, before a public company—if so, he wished to know it.
Note: The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase (as) savage as a meat-ax(e) in British English is from a report published in The Morning Herald (London, England) of Thursday 10th October 1839, which described one Mr. Gray as:
looking peculiarly fierce, or, as the Americans say, “as savage as a meat axe.”
The earliest occurrence of the phrase (as) wicked as a meat-ax(e) that I have found is from The Snow Wreath, published in The Clockmaker; or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville (London: Richard Bentley, 1838), by the Nova-Scotian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865):
I can’t think what on airth could have put that are crotchet into your head. Nor I neither, said I; and besides, said I, aketchin’ hold of her hand, and drawin’ her close to me,—and besides, says I,—I shouldn’t have felt so awful cold neither, if you ——. Hold your tongue, said she, you goney you, this minit; I won’t hear another word about it, and go right off and get your breakfast, for you was sent for half an hour ago. Arter bein’ mocked all night, says I, by them are icy lips of your ghost. Now I see them are pretty little sarcy ones of yourn, I think I must, and I’ll be darned if I won’t have a ——. Well , I estimate you won’t, then, said she, you impedence,—and she did fend off like a brave one—that’s a fact; she made frill, shirt collar, and dickey fly like snow; she was as smart as a fox-trap, and as wicked as a meat-axe;—there was no gettin’ near her no how.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase (as) mad as a meat-ax(e) that I have found is from Little Souls, published in the North Star (Danville, Vermont) of Monday 20th November 1843:
We abhor men of little souls. Every thing they do is performed in a sneaking manner. If you trade with them, the trouble they cause you is worth double your profit. They will stand an hour, and contrive a dozen ways to sponge you out of half a cent; and if they cannot accomplish it, they will go off as mad as a meat-axe, muttering to themselves about our hard world, depravity, &c.
Note: It seems that the phrase (as) mad as a meat-ax(e) is now chiefly used in Australian English.
In fact, so associated with Australia is this phrase that Art Hough felt the need to explain it in a portrait of Leeanda Wilton, “a true blue Australian” who was visiting the USA as a Rotary Exchange student—portrait published in The Cedar Rapids Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) of Sunday 30th May 1976:
She rarely, if ever, becomes “mad as meat axe” (cross and angry), but any suggestion that her strong accent is British, rather than pure Australian, is sure to get a rise out of her.
However, the earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase (as) mad as a meat-ax(e) in an Australian publication is from an extract from Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s Nature and Human Nature (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1855), quoted in the review of this book published in The Adelaide Times (Adelaide, South Australia) of Saturday 7th July 1855:
We are in doubt what further we shall gather out of volumes so full of fun and fancy. Some lines of real Connecticut eloquence, reported as having fallen from a trader who was busy over a matter of sale and barter, are not to be resisted:—
“‘Tell you what, stranger,’ said he, ‘I feel as mad as a meat axe, and I hope I may be darned to all darnation, if I wouldn’t chaw up your ugly, mummyised corpse, hair, hide, and hoof, this blessed minute, as quick as I would mother’s dough-nuts, if I warn’t afraid you’d pyson me with you atimy, I’ll be dod drotted if I wouldn’t.’”
The following was published in The Canberra Times (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) of Saturday 28th January 1995:
By Ronald Rose
Origins as mad as a meataxe
“MAD AS a meataxe—where does that expression come from?” I was asked. It sounds Australian and indeed it was listed by Sid Baker (The Australian Language) together with a whole string of others—mad as a cut snake, tree full of galahs, frilled lizard . . .
Professor Gerry Wilkes (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms) noted the first occurrence, in 1946, in Coast to Coast: “The cow’s mad, mad as a meataxe!” The Australian National Dictionary provided further examples, but no-one offered any suggestion on a possible origin for the meataxe idiom.
A pause here to note that whilst mad as a cut snake may be Australian, it probably derives from the English mad as a nadder = mad as an adder. Also, there are many “mad as” expression [sic] in our language. Mad as a hatter may be a corruption of nadder, but it is more likely, as Partridge says, a topical reference, like the similar mad as a weaver. Mad as a [March] hare goes back to Chaucer, a reference to hare behaviour during the rutting season.
To return to meataxe, I found that Thomas Haliburton, an early wordsman, used the expression “She was . . . as wicked as a meataxe” in 1835. So meataxe, used metaphorically, was not Australian. I considered various possibilities, words that sounded like it, that could have been its source. One was Metaxas, the fiery Greek general of nearly a century ago; a brandy with a similar name . . .
Then I turned to Yiddish and found a possible answer. Meshugga means crazy, certifiably mad. A foolishness, a fairly harmless obsession is mishegaas, which possibly could be misheard as meataxe. On the other hand, it could be perfectly straightforward—meataxe is pretty mad, isn’t it?