I came across the expression “stumble into the buzzsaw” in the article titled “House Republican open to gun restriction” appearing in Time magazine January 11 issue. The article begins with the following sentence:

“Why haven’t Republicans developed a Pavlovian reflex to stop touching “legitimate rape,” the most electrified phrase in politics? Georgia Representative Phil Gingrey is the latest to stumble into the Todd Akin buzzsaw.”

I checked Readers English Japanese Dictionary at hand. There’s no idiom “stumble into the buzz saw,” but for “monkey with a buzzsaw.” However, I was able to find another example of the usages of this phrase on Google search;

The majority of the eighteen pieces in Borjesson's book are about hard-working > - Between them, the authors of the incendiary new book Into the Buzzsaw, out this month from Prometheus, have won nearly ... to the ideals of their profession, who stumble into the buzzsaw and have their careers and reputations eviscerated. - flatrock.org.nz/.

Putting the above two quotes together, it seems to me “stumble into the buzzsaw” means to get involved into a grave disaster just like stamping a land mine carelessly.

What is the exact meaning of 'stumble into the buzzsaw'? Is it a popuar idiom or a set of phrase?

  • 3
    Never heard it before, though that doesn't mean it isn't popular somewhere, but I note that a lot of the uses are in terms of a book called that. I think the literal meaning of stumbling into a buzzsaw would be straightforward, and from that the metaphorical meaning would be clearly just as you deduced yourself.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 1, 2013 at 9:01
  • 1
    It is a mark of the success of this site, that if you google "stumble into the buzzsaw", then the second most popular link refers to this page. Other than that, is the phrase similar to "kicking a hornet's nest"? Feb 1, 2013 at 9:25
  • @Yoichi: It's true Google reports 2190 instances of "stumble into the buzzsaw", but if you also include -"and have their careers and reputations eviscerated" (preceded by a minus sign to remove the single instance you cited twice), there are just 2 links to this very question here on ELU, plus 2 others. Perhaps there would be a few more for "stumble into the XXXXX buzzsaw", but it's a long way from being an established metaphorical usage. Feb 1, 2013 at 19:28
  • @Fumble Fingers. I was careless enough to pick up virtually the same examples of the phrase. I took them for being different quotes simply because they started with different wordings and were from different sites. Seeing your comment, I reread the quotes and found that they were talking about the same book. By gush! I deleted one. Feb 1, 2013 at 21:50
  • Cont. Correction: By gush → By gosh. Feb 1, 2013 at 23:58

4 Answers 4

  • you have the implication correctly, the person's inadvertent slip led to disaster.
  • it is not a set phrase or idiom, it is simply a one-off combination metaphorical use of the two words 'stumble' and 'buzzsaw'. '
    • 'Stumble' is somewhat of a dead metaphor in that stumbling or falling or slipping or tripping immediately invoke an small inadvertent action or mistake.
    • 'Buzzsaw' is very new and evocative of a quick debilitating disaster, quickly and violently removing a limb, with blood and gore.

Put together, they perfectly describe this particular situation, making a small slip that leads to disaster.


Short: Destroy your own career by allowing your reputation, professional standing etc to be destroyed by overstepping the mark in your actions and failing to take proper account of a danger that you were well aware of.


"Buzzsaw may not be a common term in Japan. It's typically a saw with a large diameter open and dangerous blade (400mm would be small, 600mm common, 1000 mm not unknown). These are used in timber yards and for log and firewood cutting, usually by experienced users. The blades are often "open" with no guards or partial guards. Death is usually half a metre or less away from the user at all times. "Stumbling into a buzzsaw" in real life would be a catastrophic life changing or fatal experience. It's not what you are there to do (of course) BUT it's a constant danger to be aware of.

Transferring this as a metaphor into journalism or most areas of life "stumbling into the buzzsaw of xxx" would be to have your carreer or life destroyed by failing to take due account of the risks to your profession or reputation posed by xxx - often in the heat of the moment, perhaps when excessively enthusiastic and keen to get a news scoop, publish a story, take a top photo etc.

"xxx" could be a person or a situation, such as -

  • Being accused of rape or child molestation as a schoolteacher by being innocently but over-enthusiastically involved with your students.

  • A life endangering situation that you failed to take due awareness of (eg drug addiction for an undercover narcotics detective).

  • In politics, opposing a person with great power without adequate consideration of the consequences. eg


In the United States Marine Corps (I was a Marine for 16 years...well, I still am), we use that terminology to describe a "three-way ambush", revealing no other way out except to fight your way out.

  • Only 4 years' USMC infantry experience personally - but I always thought of that type of situation as more of a 'meat grinder' than a 'buzzsaw'. And, even if there were an escape route, we'd fight it out anyway by virtue of being Marines, no? Feb 3, 2015 at 1:53

In short, stumbling upon a buzzsaw is to run into some opposition that you didn’t expect. This can refer to a person, too. For instance, if a person is used to always getting their way, but they run up against a “buzzsaw”, that means that they ran into a person that isn’t as easy of a pushover and will oppose letting the person have their way, despite others always allowing it. And they won’t make it as easy to accomplish.

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