I've always understood the Swiss Army knife metaphor as it describes something to be generally useful, multi-purpose, and adaptable.

Recently when reading an article, a commenter used this metaphor 1.

It's easy to take my modest proposal to an absurd extreme: either you write code all day, or you become completely non-technical and never touch a compiler again. Or maybe you spend so much time pursuing related interests that you become a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. In other words, a Swiss Army Knife.

It seems he is describing a tool that is trying to do lots of things but is good at none.

Is this a common interpretation of this metaphor?

  • 1
    Interesting question! Would you mind sharing a link to the article you read? If it wasn't online, it would still be good to identify it somehow. Sep 30, 2019 at 4:58
  • 1
    I don't recall ever having heard "Swiss army knife" used negatively.
    – nnnnnn
    Sep 30, 2019 at 5:13
  • @aparente001 Attached the link, thanks for the help!
    – Erica Xu
    Sep 30, 2019 at 5:23
  • 2
    Usually "Swiss Army knife" has a positive connotation, along the lines of "all-purpose utility." But I am aware of at least one political commentator who has used the term derisively—and repeatedly over the past six years or more—to refer to a military aircraft whose feature set, he says, reflects an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach by its designers. See, e.g., "Checking In on the Flying Swiss Army Knife" (July 16, 2013). The connotation of "Swiss Army knife" in this case is quite negative.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 30, 2019 at 6:22
  • It is a product which sometimes raises a smile when mentioned, as it seems to reflect a kind of boy-scout preparedness, a mindset seen as uncool by young urbanites. There are of course many cheap imitations around, mostly I suspect emanating from the Far East, and they all tend to get called "Swiss Army Knives" -but I've heard some referred to deprecatingly as "Korean Navy Knives"!
    – WS2
    Sep 30, 2019 at 9:52

2 Answers 2


Am unable to comment, so posting here: I can only speak to my research discipline but I've never heard 'Swiss Army Knife' used negatively in research papers not in any formal or informal discussions. The meaning the link you provided appears to be better replaced with 'Jack of all trades, master of none'.


The Swiss army knife has, presumably, a huge array of tools -- way more than most people would need. In other words, it's overkill. See, for example:

Folks who want a true do-it-all tool will appreciate this knife, but it's really overkill for most campers. (source)

Others have used this overkill way of loading something up with features in an absurd way as a metaphor, for example this rant about the smart phone:

The cork-screw, the scissors, the magnifier, the golf club cleaner, and the wire cutter in a Swiss Army knife are OK, but they are not the best tools for doing the respective jobs. Wireless phones have become the Swiss Army knife for communication, networking, and entertainment. (source)

It's reasonably common.

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