To be on the back foot - Idiom

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Aug 17, 2007.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    The general meaning of 'to be on the back foot' seems clear to me - to be in retreat; to be at a disadvantage and under pressure, responding to (adverse) events... Is there a more specific meaning linked to sports, and football more particularly? It may be obvious to many, but it is not to me.

    Thanks
     
  2. bibliolept

    bibliolept Senior Member

    Northern California
    AE, Español
    You can have an opponent "on the run" or "on the ropes," if the opponent is in retreat or generally in trouble.
     
  3. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    The last post in this thread says something similar.
     
  4. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thank you and I had not realized that there was a Thread on this already - and the link appears to be to boxing, not football.
     
  5. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I wonder why Panj. suggests the idiom comes from boxing. Most of the references I found on the web which try to explain it say it comes from cricket, where batsmen can be forced on the back foot to defend their wicket - not that there aren't forward defensive shots also.
     
  6. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I have only skimmed the previous Thread but it did seem to point towards boxing as the origin, as opposed to football, which came up a lot when I did a quick search on the web. You are now mentioning cricket and it would stand to reason, too, given the nature of the sport. In any case, there seems to be a link to one form of sport or other...
     
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    ~~chuckle~~
    Here we are again Thomas - remember the keep your eye in idiom?

    As before, the idiom works well in more than one sport. I expect I suggested boxing because that was consistent with the general topic of gladiatorial combat.
     
  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Yes, I had that in mind as I wrote. I was expecting you to say that one of your authoritative books was clear it was a boxing expression. How long before we get a thread on the source of the expression 'it's not cricket'?
     
  9. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    OK, so, it isn't cricket - the expression relates to more than one sport and not to one sport in particular. I have a feeling the figurative and idiomatic use of the phrase is probably more frequent than the sports-related one, at the end of the day.
     
  10. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    You say the expression relates to more than one sport, James, but don't give any justification. You may be right, but it's surprisingly easy to find links between the expression and cricket on the web, and I haven't yet found others, except ones from people who don't know where it comes from. Here's one of the cricket ones:

    Off-balance: Another sporting metaphor that seems to have gone awry appeared in a headline in World News: "Bin Laden memo puts Bush on back foot." American presidents don't play cricket, so why would they find themselves on the back foot?
     
  11. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    I understand I've got him on the back foot as a rugby metaphor (or a metaphor from similar contact sports). If I tackle the ball carrier from the other team, I may bring him to the ground. Alternatively I may tackle him higher up his body and we may both remain standing: if so I will try to push him backwards. While his weight is on the front foot, i.e. his centre of gravity is ahead of him, this is difficult. If his weight is on his back foot, i.e. his centre of gravity is behind him, he is helpless: all he can do is keep running backwards to stay upright.
     
  12. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thomas, you say the expression relates specifically to cricket and you could well be right - I must confess I am not competent to comment.

    But we have had several contributors disagreeing - Panj talking about boxing and Teddy (Bear) mentioning rugby. A quick search on the web I did appeared to point towards football (soccer to AE speakers).

    So, I would say that the jury is out on the origin of the phrase. Having said all that, it could still be that cricket was the sport that originally generated the phrase, and other sports just picked it up...
     
  13. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    There's nothing to suggest this expression didn't begin in relation to cricket, but finding other examples is not ... impossible :)

     
  14. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hi James, I obviously wasn't clear. If you look carefully at my post you'll see I didn't say the expression derives from cricket, just that it's hard to find examples specifically linking it to another sport. I'd be very pleased if you would produce some.

    Hi Panj. All the examples you give show the use of the expression in boxing, which doesn't actually suggest that the expression derived from boxing, any more than saying that a bout of 'flu put my typing on the back foot, would suggest the expression came from typing.

    The example I gave showed the metaphor used in one field and the author explicitly relating it to cricket - and I could find others similarly explicit.

    I'm not sure that the expression originated from cricket, but a lot of other people seem to be. I hope we can find some other examples of the kind I'm talking about, so that we can develop some persuasive alternative theories.
     
  15. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    Wouldn't the source of the idiom be a context in which the phrase is not used metaphorically, but in which it actually describes a posture in which someone is at a disadvantage, or is in retreat?

    I know nothing about sports. Does the term as used in cricket refer to a postion in which the player is especially vulnerable? I can't tell from the Wiki entry.

    With the same caveat, it seems to me that the phrase is used literally in Panjandrum's examples, especially in the 2nd and 3rd. (Edit: I mean when they are read in their original context.)
     
  16. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Cagey, we are all pretty much agreed that the origin of the phrase is indeed descriptive and not metaphorical. The disagreement is as to the following issue: does it come from a specific sport or not? And, if it does, which one? Cricket has been mentioned.

    Thomas, with all due respect, I find your arguments of a rather scholastic nature. You would make a very good Jesuit. (But, perhaps, you are one...)

    You say: "I didn't say the phrase derives from cricket." OK, fair enough. Then you say: "It's hard to find examples specifically linking it to another sport. I'd be very pleased if you would produce some."

    So, your argument goes: The phrase may not derive from cricket, but examples linked to cricket are common, others cannot be found.

    I am sorry but this is plainly, squarely untrue, unless you reject Teddy's insight based on his own experience and interpretation (which one could choose to do). But, beyond this, you need to reject the very specific examples given by Panj and relating to boxing.

    Are you trying to say that boxing is not a sport but what is it, then?

    This could go on for a long time... The expression may be more common in connection with cricket, but it does not exclude other sports. As for the precise origin of it, no one has quite explained it so far.
     
  17. cosmoturfer Junior Member

    UK, English
    I haven't done any research on this, so feel free to disregard...

    As a regular player I can't see how the idiom 'to be on the back foot' could derived from football/soccer. There is no context in which it makes sense as you never have a front and back foot as such. But football is a good place to use the expression 'to have two left feet'.

    Cricket however is about the balance between front and back feet, but the problem here is that being "on the back foot" in cricket is not necessarily a sign of being in a weak position. In fact, many players are more comfortable attacking the ball from their back foot (if you want to be technical about it, shots such as the hook, sweep, square cut and pull :confused: can only be played off the back foot ).

    Boxing makes a lot more sense to me. Being on the back foot is definitely not where you want to be as it's not so far from there to lying flat on the canvas!
     
  18. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The point I was feebly trying to make is that in boxing this expression is used literally and naturally, as one would use a standard idiom. It is not used metaphorically, relying for meaning on some other context.

    This doesn't of course give any indication that the metaphor began in boxing, but it suggests the possibility that it could have done.

    I understand what Thomas is seeking - more examples of the metaphor being explained by reference to an activity XXXX where it would be used literally and with a meaning that supports the normal understanding of the metaphor.
    XXXX could be cricket, boxing, or something completely different (though I suspect it won't be typing :)).
     
  19. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    You're absolutely right in your supposition about what I am seeking, Panj. The example I gave about the president specifically related the metaphor to cricket.

    I'm not convinced either that your boxing examples aren't metaphors from somewhere else (I daren't suggest again from where) which are used in the context of boxing.
     
  20. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello James,

    I'm glad you've got my 'argument' right. You say it's plainly, squarely untrue - and cite Teddy's insight about rugby and Panj.'s examples from boxing. I accept Teddy's insight - but I was looking for some independent examples, of course - and I explain above that I think Panj.'s boxing examples could easily be the use of a metaphor from another game being used in boxing.

    Much more interesting I found Cosmoturfer's argument that the phrase isn't particularly suited to cricket, a point I made earlier, of course, though I didn't make it strongly or persuasively, and I didn't look at other sports where it would be more appropriate, as he does.

    I find it surprising that so many people link the phrase to cricket, and I wish someone would find some genuine explicit linking of the phrase to another game.
     
  21. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It is difficult to attribute an origin to the metaphorical use when the expression is used naturally and literally - and with the "on the defensive" meaning - in a different contexts. Those of you who are involved with fencing and various martial arts would recognise it too. It comes naturally in any context where the feet are placed one behind the other.

    Windsurfers also use "on the back foot" with no sense of being on the defensive :)
     
  22. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thomas,

    Interesting notion, this one; I must admit analyzing examples of (mis)applied logic has always been a hobby of mine.

    (a) Expression XYZ is used literally (i.e. descriptively) in sport ABC (yet to be identified - we were told it was boxing/another, then we were assured it was cricket, then, we are told it probably isn't cricket after all); (b) Expression XYZ subsequently gets adopted in sport 1-2-3, in a way that copies the use of it with sport ABC, and in a way that is descriptive in nature (since many sports rely on the manner in which one positions one's feet after all, including martial arts...); (c) But the use of expression XYZ in sport 1-2-3 is metaphorical, because it is inspired by the literal use of expression XYZ in sport ABC, which would (perhaps) be the origin of it; (d) Then we have further metaphorical and purely idiomatic uses of the phrase in other contexts (e.g.: politics).

    I am afraid it doesn't quite work like this. If an expression is used literally to describe a process of a physical/material nature that can be observed (e.g.: the murderer was sadistically twisting the knife in the wound of his victim), it is a literal use of the said phrase. If an expression is used out of context to illustrate something of a different/abstract nature, it is metaphorical (e.g.: when the head of sales was sacked, his boss twisted the knife in the wound by humiliating him in front of all the staff on his last day in the office). [I am not trying to twist the knife, by the way. :D]

    So, here, what we have is a literal use of the expression in a range of sports, from what we can tell, that evolved into an idiomatic expression in non-sporting contexts. We are not sure which sport uses the expression more and where it originated. That is where we stand on this and it seems unlikely to me that we will get anywhere further any time soon. But it has been very interesting all the same, also thanks to the insight into various sports that I would never be able to provide.
     

Share This Page