taken aback by

Hi all,

please, could you tell me how often the expression "taken aback" is used? We learnt at school that it is an idiom so I thought it is natural to use it but my friend says it´s archaic and sounds silly...

Thank you.
 
  • Æsop

    Banned
    English--American (upstate NY)
    It's a nautical term from the sailing era that is used on land and in modern times as a metaphor, but most people just know that it means "surprised" or "caught unprepared." The sails on a sailing ship could be adjusted so that the wind would force the ship backward instead of forward; usually, SOME of the sails were set this way to offset or counter the other sails, either reducing the ship's speed or holding it in place (not going forward or backward). The sails that would force the ship backward were said to be "aback." However, if the direction of the wind changed suddenly, all of the sails might be in this position--the ship was "taken aback." The crew would have to scramble to change the positions of the sails to get the ship moving forward again, and in certain circumstances being "taken aback" could take down the masts or drive the ship aground (onto the shore or shallow water, where the bottom of the ship would be in contact with the bottom of the sea). So someone who is metaphorically "taken aback" is surprised by an unexpected and unwelcome event, and has to work quickly and without preparation to avoid damage or repair the damage already done.
     

    Nymeria

    Senior Member
    English - Barbadian/British/educated in US universities blend
    I wouldn't call it archaic or silly sounding at all. I use it pretty often and hear it pretty often as well. I am, in fact, quite taken aback that your friend would say something like that. ;)
     

    KHS

    Senior Member
    the hard thing about all expressions is using them in the right context

    If you tell us the situation and what other language you used, we might be able to tell you why your friend started laughing...and whether we would have thought it was normal or not in the situation...
     
    the hard thing about all expressions is using them in the right context

    If you tell us the situation and what other language you used, we might be able to tell you why your friend started laughing...and whether we would have thought it was normal or not in the situation...
    I asked him which preposition to use with "TAKEN ABACK". First, he was confused by the word ABACK so I explained that it meant "be surprised" or something like this. He said "Oh, I know!" And added that if he had used this expression during his stay in the US, everyone would have laughed at him because it is archaic. The context was "Tourists were taken aback by wearing kilts in Scotland". And we are both Czech;-)

    (I´m not sure about the tense usage in this paragraph... I´m sorry for mistakes)
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    It probably should be "Tourists were taken aback by seeing people in Scotland wearing kilts." But other than that, it's a perfectly normal expression.
     

    Æsop

    Banned
    English--American (upstate NY)
    I asked him which preposition to use with "TAKEN ABACK". First, he was confused by the word ABACK so I explained that it meant "be surprised" or something like this. He said "Oh, I know!" And added that if he had used this expression during his stay in the US, everyone would have laughed at him because it is archaic.
    He is wrong unless he travelled exclusively and deliberately in very ignorant circles. Moderately mature, educated, and sophisticated listeners in the U.S. would not have found "aback" archaic, peculiar, or laughable for other reasons, even if they did not know the original nautical reference.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Taken aback appears 281 times in the British National Corpus, 854 times in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Taking into account their relative sizes that is not a great difference.

    To put this in perspective, taken seriously appears 354 times in the BNC, 1,053 times in the COCA.
     
    Last edited:

    Æsop

    Banned
    English--American (upstate NY)
    As I explained earlier in the thread, the literal meaning of "taken aback" had to do with the effects of sudden wind changes on sailing ships; it's modern use by landlubbers is metaphorical. A ship affected by a wind change was taken aback by the wind, not at the wind. Idiomatically, we can be taken by surprise by or at something, although if there is an ambush or sneak attack, we are taken surprise only by--we would not say, "Custer was taken by surprise at the Sioux" (although, of course, he was taken by surprise at the Little Big Horn--a place). We could say, "Custer was surprised at the attack of the Sioux." Probably, the occasional replacement of by with at after "taken aback" is by analogy with "surprised" or "taken by surprise."
     
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