Back Me Up on This — English is Stupid

back buttonSpeaking of rear, the word back is a deceptively simple English word. If you are a dictionary reader like me, you already know that the shorter the word, the longer the list of definitions. Back has its share of definitions, but they aren’t the problem. The most delightfully confusing usage for this word happens when it is combined with other directional adverbs, such as up and down.

Used alone, back has a couple of general meanings that are related to each other. There is the back, the place on your body opposite your front, the thing that annoying folks are always being a pain in. And then there is Arnold’s tag line “I’ll be back.” He is not hinting that he will become his own rear end. He only makes himself the butt of jokes later in his personal life. As The Terminator, he is saying that he will be returning shortly, with violently entertaining consequences. For once English makes sense. These two definitions of back are logically related. A return journey is the opposite face of a forward journey, so “coming back” implies you had to turn around and show your back to the place you went.

But English likes to pile up directional words to make new idioms that mean specific things that vary in crazy, stupid ways depending on the context. Even though up and down are opposites, the combined forms back up and back down are not opposites, as a logical linguist might expect.

The only way to see what I mean is by example:

Your bathtub drain can back up, or you can back up the car into the street.

But using the opposite direction helper adverb does not give the opposite meaning:

The plumber demanded a huge fee to fix the backed-up drain.  I wanted to argue, but I backed down and gave him the money.

You can back up your computer hard drive, go back up to your old high school for the ten year reunion, or back up your sister in her decision to buy that red sports car.

But when you want to restore the computer files from the server, you don’t back them down, you download them. And if you decide your sister is being foolish to buy that Miata, you don’t back her down (that would be something else), you back out of your support for her.

For years I would back in my car into the garage, so that when I want to go back out, I can just drive forward instead of backing up. But when my wife got back in, she got on my back about it, so I backed down, and now I have to back up to go back down the driveway.

I’ve gone back through this whole article, and I still don’t want to back off of my original premise that the word back got me back on to way back when:  English is stupid.

Y’all come back on up here soon!