The Grammarphobia Blog

When Pat was taken aback

Q: Pat was asked on WNYC about the origins of “taken aback” and she seemed taken aback. It’s an old sailing term. The sails are taken aback when the wind suddenly changes and blows them against the mast.

A: Several nautical listeners wrote us about “taken aback” after Pat’s appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show.

You’re correct in thinking that the expression began life as a nautical term. But before examining the history of the phrase, let’s begin at the beginning, with the word “aback.”

In its first incarnation, about a thousand years ago, “aback” was a simple adverb of motion.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it meant “in a direction backwards, to the rear, towards that which is behind,” or merely “back.”

It was also used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “from the front, or scene of action, off, away, to a distance.”

The word was first recorded in the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), the earliest complete translation of the four Gospels into Old English.

The OED has two citations from the Gospels, with “aback” then written on bæc or on-bæc.

Since the Old English looks pretty bewildering, we’ll attempt a literal translation: “Go thou aback, devil!” (Matthew iv.10), and “Many of his learning-knights [i.e., disciples] turned aback, and went not with him” (John vi.66).

“Aback” became a nautical term in the 17th century, the OED says, when it was used to describe sails “laid back against the mast, with the wind bearing against their front surfaces.”

A ship with its sails in that condition was also described as “aback.”

Here are some examples from various nautical accounts:

“I braced my main topsails aback” (1697); “brace the foremost yards aback” (1762); “The Revenge was necessitated to throw her sails all aback” (1790); “We instantly hove all aback to diminish the violence of the shock” (1847).

It’s this use of “aback,” that led in the 18th century to the nautical term “taken aback.”

A ship is “taken aback,” the OED says, “when through a shift of wind or bad steerage, the wind comes in front of the square sails and lays them back against the masts, instantly staying the ship’s onward course.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1756): “If they luff up, they will be taken aback, and run the hazard of being dismasted.”

Before long, this evocative term for being stopped in one’s seafaring tracks made the leap from ship to shore.

Since the 19th century, the OED says, “to take aback” has meant “to surprise or discomfit by a sudden and unlooked-for check.”

Here are the first two citations for this sense:

“The boy, in sea phrase, was taken all aback” (from Thomas Hood’s Up the Rhine, 1840);

“I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life” (from Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation, 1842).

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