What is a Double-Edged Sword?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The expression double-edged sword implies that an action or decision that appears to help can also harm the sword holder. Metaphorically speaking, a sword with two edges would solve one problem, but could potentially cause even more problems on the back swing. Some sources also suggest the expression cuts both ways also covers the same territory, meaning favorable consequences on one side can lead to unfavorable consequences when the sword swings back.

The Chinese Jian is a type of double-edged sword.
The Chinese Jian is a type of double-edged sword.

A single-edged sword is used for slashing and cutting from a mounted or superior position. A samurai sword or katana is one example of such a sword. A double-edged sword, like a rapier, would be used in battle to engage enemies approaching from both sides of the fighter. It could be equally as deadly swung to the left or right, and could possibly injure the swordsman himself, if not handled properly.

In a business setting, an employer might describe a pay raise as a double-edged sword. While an employee may benefit from the increased pay, the money needed to finance the raise may have to come from another department's budget. Others may see a government military operation in a similar way, since the effect of a quick victory may be the destabilization of the entire region. A number of situations in which the same action that heals can also harm could be described with this term.

There are some etymologists who question the accuracy and appropriateness of term in the metaphorical sense. In real life, a sword with two edges does twice as much damage, with only a minimal risk to the wielder. There is no tangible harm/heal relationship, but the expression suggests one. The concept of an action or decision cutting both ways does seem plausible, but the swordsman is generally protected from the blade. Critics suggest a different weapon, such as a double-tipped spear, implies more of a mutual threat.

Regardless of its historical or military accuracy, the expression does succeed in describing a potentially dangerous situation with unforeseen ramifications. Whenever such a situation arises, it pays to examine both sides of the issue to make sure the sword's return stroke does not make matters worse.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I have made many big decisions in my life that were double-edged swords. Sometimes, there's just no way to win in certain situations.


I would think using a double-edged sword in battle or taking one with you on a journey would be a good thing. I don't think it's likely at all that you will cut yourself when you pull it back. Maybe this would be an issue if the sword were sharp on the front and back as well, but it isn't.


A dynamic person in a new government is very often a double edged sword. He gives people the change and revolution they may demand, but at the same time, he is still human, and demands things from people. Sometimes there are people who suffer unjustly under his regime or reign of terror, but are willing to risk that in favor of dynamic change to their nation.


Often choosing the lesser of two evils is important in assessing a double-edged sword solution to a problem. There is also the problem of a catch-22 or a "scylla and charybdis" when someone is forced to choose between two deleterious possibilities.

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