“Stab in the back,” “Back to the wall,” “Behind your back”: 6 Essential ‘Back’ Idioms (English Vocabulary Lesson)

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s learn some useful idioms revolving around your ‘back!’

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In recent months I have released a lot of idiom content to help all of you improve your vocabulary and learn some expressions commonly used in English conversations. Such as my episode on idioms to describe the emotions of sadness, embarrassment, and happiness, my Halloween episode on spooky idioms you can use all year round, and many others!

On today’s episode, let’s learn some idioms to do with your ‘back’. In this context, ‘back’ refers to the body part; the rear part of the human body, from your shoulders to your hips. There are many idioms in English that use the ‘back’: in researching this episode I remembered at least 20! However, for the sake of time I will just focus of 7 of my favourites!  

 As I have been quite ill over the last few days, I haven’t had time to write and prepare longer episodes recently. However, hopefully things will be back to usual soon and I will return to my usual schedule of uploads! Anyway, without further ado, here are today’s ‘back’ idioms!

Behind (one’s) back

If you do something behind someone’s back you do it secretly and without that person’s knowledge. Behind someone’s back is almost always used in a negative way, to describe something that is unfair or dishonourable. We often use the phrases talk behind someone’s back and laugh behind someone’s back to reference conversations that happen without someone’s knowledge! However, any kind of action can be done behind someone’s back.

“He will be upset that you made the decision behind his back”

Cover (one’s) back 

If you do something to cover your back, you do something in order to protect yourself against criticism, accusations, or other things that could harm you. Covering your back means to avoid being blamed for something, to avoid responsibility for a negative thing, and to prevent potential negative consequences. There are many ways to cover your back, depending on what you want to distance yourself from. For example, business executives may cover their backs from accusations of wrongdoing by giving other people full responsibility instead. The opposite of covering your back is “leaving yourself wide open to something.”  

“Whenever you make an agreement, you should cover your back by getting everything in writing”

Back to the wall

Have you ever had your back to the wall? I know I have! Back to the wall or back against the wall is an idiom meaning that you are in a bad or high-pressured situation in which your ability to act or make decisions is limited. The term was originally used for armies making their final effort or last stand. Now, it refers to any difficult situation, from which you cannot easily escape. I had my back to the wall a few months ago when I had multiple research papers and proposals due in the same week that I moved countries at very short notice. 

“The bank has me with back against the wall: I have no choice but to ask my friends for help to pay my debt”

Scratch (one’s) back 

If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours! You may have heard this phrase before in TV shows or movies – it is quite well known. If you scratch someone’s back you do that person a favour in hopes that they will return a favour to you. In other words, you do something nice, generous, helpful, or beneficial for someone. In return, you expect or hope that they will do something similar for you! A journalist may scratch a politician’s back with the hope that they could get some secrets in the future, a businessman may scratch his potential client’s backs to make sure they become real clients, or you may scratch your friend’s back so that they give you a lift to work.

If you do the laundry I’ll do the cooking-you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours

Stab in the back

A stab in the back, as a noun phrase, means a betrayal or act or treachery. As a verb phrase, to stab someone in the back means to betray someone’s confidence or trust. You are harming someone by betraying them, almost as though you really thrust a knife into someone’s back. Companies will act like your friend to get your business, but will stab you in the back when it makes financial sense. The leader of an organisation always has to be careful no one stabs them in the back in order to replace them. 

“You shouldn’t trust her; she is always stabbing her friends in the back”

Watch (someone’s) back 

If someone is trying to stab you in the back, then you need to watch your back or have someone watching your back. If you watch someone’s back you are committed and ready to help, assist, and defend that person. Or, in less serious cases, you will look out for them in case they need assistance. When my brother started at the same high school as me, my parents asked me to watch his back in case he got in any trouble. You can also watch your own back by protecting yourself from danger – that danger could be physical or figurative! 

“You can always rely on your parent’sto watch your back!”

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