I came across the phrase “sand off the sharp edges” in the following sentence of Washington Post’s (January 23rd) article titled “Obama’s State of the Union is crucial balancing act.”

“Obama’s senior advisers say he does not intend to shy away from his recent attacks on Congress or of the economic policies promoted by his Republican rivals, although he may sand off the sharp edges he has employed outside the Beltway in recent weeks to make his case.”

Though I guessed “sand off the sharp edge” means “blunt the edge,” I checked the meaning of the phrase on Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster online dictionaries to make it certain. None of them registers this expression.

However, www.mojosells.com provides definition - The concept of “sanding off the edges” means that you decide to please some people less in order to please others more.

There is no entry of “sand off the sharp edge” or “sand off the edge “in GoogleNgram.

What is the exact meaning of ‘President Obama may sand off the sharp edge he has employed outside the Beltway? Does sharp edge mean straightforward, aggressive, and relentless rhetoric he used before? Is “sand off the sharp edge” relatively modern usage?

  • 1
    "sharp edges" doesn't have any particular idiomatic meaning in respect of political debate tactics. In context here we can assume Obama's recent attacks on Congress/Republican economic policy were characterised as sharp, hard-hitting, incisive (and curiously, blunt, outspoken), but he will be adopting a softer, more polished tone in future. As can be seen from the fact that in this context, sharp and blunt are effectively synonyms, I think it's reasonable to say the words are effectively just meaningless "political hack" terminology here. – FumbleFingers Oct 19 '12 at 15:17

No. I don't think it is a recognized idiom, certainly not an established one.

In fact, the reference article apparently uses the phrase more for 'softening' the tone to avoid possible unpleasantness for any sections of the target audience. Contrast this with the use of 'sharp remarks' -- those that tend to hurt, though they may only be candid opinion or factual statements.

Google books nGram returns no significant results for the phrase.


"Sand off the sharp edge" seems like a variation on "smooth off the rough edges".

"Smooth off the rough edges" is a reasonably common metaphor, and does not always use the exact phrase.

The metaphor is that of a woodworker, smoothing a rough piece of wood with sandpaper, resulting in a piece that's acceptable to more people.

"Sand off the rough edges", "Smooth off the rough surfaces", "Smooth off the edges", and indeed "sand off the sharp edge" are all variations on this.

It can be complimentary:

"I was not impressed with John's essay at first, but now he has smoothed off the rough edges and I like it more."

But sometimes it can be negative:

"Diana was an interesting act when she started, but her management have smoothed off the rough edges so much that she's boring".

It seems to me that the example used in the question, deliberately emphasises the ambiguity of whether the "sharp edges" used by Obama are a good thing or a bad thing. A sharp knife is both useful and dangerous.

  • From the two phrases: 'his recent attacks' and 'although he may sand off the sharp edges', one can infer that the speaker intends to soften his words so as not to hurt. – Kris Jan 23 '12 at 12:26
  • @Kris yes, but it's up to the reader to decide whether that softening is the right or wrong thing to do. – slim Jan 23 '12 at 12:31
  • @Kris says ‘Sand off the sharp edge means ‘to soften his words so as not to hurt. Slim says it means “smooth off the edges.Schroedingers says “he has been honing, sharpening his tactics.” I thought it means soften the edge, because if the edge is already sharp enough, you don’t need to make it sharper. ‘Make the edge ‘sharper’ and ‘softer’ is just opposite. From the context of the line “He does not intend to shy away from his recent attacks on Congress --, "although" he may sand off the sharp edges he has employed outside the Beltway,” I’m inclined to second Slim’s answer. How do you think it? – Yoichi Oishi Jan 23 '12 at 22:41
  • @YoichiOishi Slim has left the answer inconclusive. Contrary to Slim, however, I do not see any ambiguity there. We can clearly infer that it means to soften the speech. – Kris Jan 24 '12 at 4:23
  • @YoichiOishi You have misunderstood Cat. He means 'smoother'. – Kris Jan 24 '12 at 4:26

I think it is being used in this form as a political comment. The implication is that he has been honing - sharpening - some of his tactics, rather like knives, ready for a fight.

If he is sanding these off, he is making them blunter or smoother, meaning that his words and actions are going to be smoother with others.


No other buttons seem to work so this seems the only vehicle right now to make a comment. What is a bit disconcerting to me is the question title's very reference to idiom and, inferentially, to American lexicon--which led me to believe the source was misunderstood. I see nothing about the saying that is idomatic: all words are well defined and commonly understood. Their presentation as a simile, alone, is not (yet) commonplace--in fact seems largely an impromtu literary creation.

I would agree that the expression, as colorful as its imagery is, is neither commonplace nor a significant, if at all, subset of the American idiom.

I would offer that it is best understood by understanding the circumstances and surroundings in which it is couched.

The State of the Union speech delivered yearly by the President occurs inside the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C), inside the Capitol, inside the House of Representatives, before a joint session of Congress.

Outside of the Beltway refers figuratively to the United States at large as opposed to within the capital city--which is posited figuratively to be situated inside an Interstate highway loop, along U.S. Interstate 95 (mostly in Maryland), which more or less rings the capital city--more specifally, "inside the beltway" is a kind of insider catch phrase referring to the headquarter institutions of national government.

The notion of sanding rough edges (essaying to be less sharp...as in less critical) during a speech before his own and adversary party legislators is merely to suggest--and "suggest," indeed, is the tone taken in that article--that the orating President, while claiming to be working towards interparty rapproachment and cooperation, will not want to be seen as overcritical with regard to his adversary party, as had been his wont during other speeches across the country (outside the Beltway).

Said another way, the column writer might have said, simply, that the President, before Congress and a near worldwide TV audience, will see it as politically expedient to assume a less combative, more conciliatory posture as regards bipartisan interaction on legislative matters.

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