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What does It Mean to "Kill Two Birds with One Stone"?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The idiom “to kill two birds with one stone” is used to describe achieving two objectives at the same time. The term references a common hunting tool, the slingshot; slingshots continue to be used to hunt small birds, and at one point, they were very common. As you might imagine, killing one bird with a stone requires an excellent aim and control over the slingshot; to kill two could be considered even more difficult, a task for only the most skilled of hunters.

This idiom dates from the 1600s, and it was initially used in a somewhat pejorative way, to describe a philosopher's attempt to prove two arguments with a single solution. The implication was that killing two birds at one time is extremely challenging and unlikely, and that the philosopher's attempt should be viewed with extreme suspicion. The philosopher had obviously failed to satisfy his critics, who suggested that his attempt was about as successful as a try to knock out two birds with a single stone.

Over time, "to kill two birds with one stone" has come to be used more generally to accomplishing two goals at once, and the negative connotations have largely vanished. In fact, people are encouraged to think of ways to accomplish it, thereby living much more efficient lives. This is especially true in the business world, where employers are constantly on the hunt for ways to cut costs and improve efficiency, so something that kills two birds with one stone could be quite useful.

For example, someone could be flying to a city on business, and decide to visit a family member while he or she is in the city, or a company might have an employee pick up a shipment somewhere while he or she is already there. From the point of view of both the employee and the company, this can be convenient, because the employee will be reimbursed for mileage and other expenses, while the company can save a trip.

Some people feel that this term is a bit negative, given the association with hunting and death, and they prefer more positive twists on the saying. Several organizations have even sponsored contests to come up with a new and more animal-friendly version of “to kill two birds with one stone.” However, the idea has become so entrenched in many societies that it is unlikely to fade from usage anytime soon, negative or not.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon272245 — On May 31, 2012

This is the first time I've seen this theory about the origin of the phrase. Do you have a source for this info? My Google-fu is failing me. (Not that I'm doubting you, I'm just working on a paper and need a solid source). Thanks!

By anon153730 — On Feb 18, 2011

in my mother tongue (hindi / punjabi) we have an exact translation - two kill to birds with one arrow. wow, so they are all the same, humans?

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 04, 2011

Strange little idioms and phrases like this make no sense to foreigners trying to learn English! Try to use caution when using idioms around new learners. It is also true that in their languages, there are probably many idioms which wouldn't make sense to you if they were translated literally.

By SilentBlue — On Feb 02, 2011

@FernValley

It may be that this is a left-over from older, more brutal humor, from medieval times. The humor back then looked much different than it does today, often being sadistic. People would cope with a difficult life by using a bitter and dark humor to mock death and pain.

By FernValley — On Jan 17, 2011

Many idioms are kind of violent; to beat a dead horse, for example, is when you repeat the same point too many times. Though I really feel that in both of these sayings, people are not thinking about killing birds or beating dead horses so much as whatever the meaning is; whether that makes them more or less acceptable, though, is probably anyone's guess.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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