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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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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
There is, as @Phoenix mentions, the companion metaphor "it cuts both ways", meaning it can be good or bad, helpful or a hindrance, depending on the specific situation. – Hot Licks Mar 4 '15 at 13:36
up vote 7 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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As the swordsman, it's still easier to hurt yourself with the double-edged sword, such as in the case of it bouncing back. I agree that it's an imperfect metaphor, since it's not clear in whose perspective it is cast. Though regardless of whether you are using the sword or it is being used on you, both choices of edges carry consequences. – Martin Krzywinski Jan 20 '15 at 1:21

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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"Double-edged sword", as a metaphor, has always been linked with "cuts both ways", meaning it can (figuratively) hurt both the person attacked and the attacker.

From 1793:

Mr. Burr (as was supposed) was too sore to be unbiassed ; he has, therefore, delivered an opinion which, like a two-edged sword, cuts both ways, for he declares that there was no sheriff, which, if admitted, destroys the legality of the votes and casts an odium on the Governor for suffering so important an office to be vacant.

From 1713:

This sort of argument is very unfair. It is also dangerous to to the cause of those who introduce it. It is a sword which cuts both ways. For we find the House of Commons has been more guilty than the Lords in this respect.

The metaphor has never, for at least the past 300 years, been used in reference to a "real" sword fight, but always rather invoking the image of a blade that can do damage to the person wielding it, in addition to injuring the attacked party.

And it's interesting to note that, in the past 100 years, "cuts both ways" has attained a life of its own, becoming much more popular than "double-edged sword" and its kin.

Also note, however, that "two-edged sword" (which has always, up until 20 years ago, been more popular than "double-edged sword") achieved a high degree of popularity in the early 1800s, in a religious context that is apparently unrelated to the metaphor.

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A double edged sword hurts the user and the victim, even though more realistically it should be a double-ended sword.

"Everything is a double-edged sword. Nothing isn’t a double edged sword. Even a single-edged sword is a double-edged sword. Because you can cut something with it, but the other end is kind of flat and doesn’t really cut well. It’s kind of a double-edged sword." - Louis CK

Or a single-edged sword. Kill on one edge, fail on the other (which, ifsword fighting someone, will kill you)

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I suppose it comes down to an individuals understanding of the sword as a tool which can be used skillfully and thus more effectively in the hands of a trained swordsman. When sharpened on both sides, I would think its offensive and defensive capabilities would be greater than that of a comparable sword with a single sharpened edge so I am not sure why it would viewed in an unfavorable light. I've always thought of the biblical reference to the word of God as being "sharper than any two-edged sword" meaning there is nothing more powerful and thus the illustration of a two-edged sword being the ultimate weapon of the time in a literal seense, but also having the eternal meaning of rightly dividing the truth in righteousness..

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As a minister, being a metaphor I sometimes use it to tell members as a preacher wielding the Word of God (sword) that it cuts both ways, it applies to the preacher as well, less he be found to be a hypocrite. With what measure. We judge others we shall be judged by that same measure. There was two swords used by the Roman soldiers,the double edge one require the user to be skilled, same as a minister has to be skilled in the Word of God, not bringing peace but a sword.

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Doesn't seem to answer the question. – Hot Licks Apr 28 '15 at 3:37

protected by Rathony Jun 4 at 10:01

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