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When something can have both favorable and unfavorable consequences, the term double-edged sword is often used to describe it. Why?

Does a double-edged sword have unfavorable consequences? Are double-edged swords known to accidentally kill the person wielding the sword?

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3  
It can cut both ways. –  Phoenix Mar 11 '12 at 1:18
    
I always thought it meant that the sword had no handle, but instead a sharp tip at both ends. Clearly, that's going to hurt the wielder as well as the intended victim. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 18 '13 at 23:05
    
@LightnessRacesinOrbit - that would be a double-ended sword. –  Brad Dec 18 '13 at 19:58
    
@Brad: I suppose so. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 18 '13 at 20:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Some people believe that a two-edged sword is more dangerous to its user than a single-edged one, but my experience (in martial arts) does not concur. It's not likely that a skilled swordsman is going to hurt himself with the reverse edge.

A two-edged sword is designed to be more dangerous to the target, not the wielder, by cutting on both the forward stroke and the back stroke. This idea is consistent with some of the earlier uses of the phrase:

The burden of taxes, like a two-edged sword, reduced men to poverty, and exposed them to be seduced by bribery. (1809)

In this sense, it is likened to the phrase: "cuts both ways" - referring again to the two sides of the sword stroke.

I don't know at what point "cuts both ways" and "two-edged sword" came to have the current meaning of good and bad, instead of just bad and worse, but I expect the two phrases evolved together.

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Double-edged sword is somewhat of an imperfect metaphor, used with decidedly more of a semantic emphasis on double-edged than on sword. In other words, the poetic implication of cutting both ways supersedes the historical reality of the actual weapon.

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@downvoter I'm afraid the downvote wasn't eloquent enough. –  Daniel Mar 11 '12 at 3:09

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