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My last blog looked at the word BACK as a direction or destination, like UP or DOWN. When you go BACK (or run BACK, drive BACK, walk BACK, etc.), you go to where you originally started, or return. This use of BACK with movement verbs like go or come is very common in English, from politicians who want to go BACK to basics to sportspeople who come BACK from injury, and it’s worth learning. However, you need to keep it separate from the verbal use of BACK: going back is not the same as BACKING.

Backing versus Returning

The most basic meaning of to BACK as a verb is “to go backwards”, which, as your mother probably warned you, is dangerous because you can’t really see where you’re going. This is why backing is different to going back: if you return somewhere, you normally turn round before you start moving so that you’re facing the right direction. Car drivers have a reverse gear (and mirrors) so they can back into or back out of parking spaces, while tough TV detectives will tell the bad guy to back away from the gun.

Backing you into a Corner

Just as you can drive to the cinema and drive your kids to the cinema, so you can back into a corner to escape detection or back a bad guy into a corner if you’re a cop with a gun. This introduces the idea of backing as retreating or escaping that is common in business English. If you back down or back off in a negotiation, you concede territory and if you back out of an agreement, you escape in a way that is often a bit cowardly.

Giving your Full Backing

So BACK is a direction, like when you go BACK to the beginning, and BACK is a verb when you BACK out of a deal, but you have to remember that your BACK is also a noun: it’s the bit between your neck and your bum. In a hard situation, you need friends to watch your back, and this gives us the last useful meaning of the verb BACK that you see when you back up a file on your PC or give your backing to a proposal in a meeting. I’ll be looking at that meaning and some related business idioms with BACK in my next blog.

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