Jan 19, 2012

Etymological Musing on Poe's 203rd Birthday

As a critic in the 1830s, Edgar Allan Poe was referred to as the Tomahawk Man. I got curious about this and looked up the origins of the phrase "hatchet job." Turns out (he said, after an entire three minutes of research) that "hatchet man," as someone who does unpleasant tasks, dates (probably) from the mid-18th century, but "hatchet job" as a harsh attack on someone doesn't become common until (probably) after the Civil War. So, one wonders if Poe's nickname played a role in the development of that phrase from one meaning to another. If so, that's one more originary role for the guy who gave us the detective story. Dale Peck and all other critics who take pride in the sharpness of their literary invective should now claim Poe as a literary ancestor, if they haven't already.

1 comment:

Cambias said...

The mighty OED links hatchet-man to Chinese gang fights in the 1880s, whereas its earlier sense was the soldier who cleared a path for the others (and consequently risked getting picked off in an ambush).

Missing from the OED is any reference to Carrie Nation, who attacked liquor bottles and kegs in saloons with a hatchet during the heyday of the Temperance Movement.

I'd guess a hatchet-job meaning a harsh attack comes from a combination of the two. Poe's "Tomahawk Man" nickname seems like a case of someone independently coining a term which was reinvented later on.