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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

give back

(1990’s | “express one’s gratitude,” “do one’s share or part,” “return the favor”)

You could always give something back to somebody, and a sentence like “My high school did so much for me and I wanted to give something back to it” was perfectly possible fifty years ago. Then came the first excision: you could dispense with the direct object and shorten it to “I wanted to give back to my high school.” Before then, “give back” usually meant “return” or “restore.” Now it connotes recompense, a sense of gratitude or obligation. It’s also become associated with a certain class: you have to be well-off in order to give back, and you hear it often from athletes and celebrities.

A decade or so later, the indirect object — “high school” in the example above — started to die off. The direct object begins to disappear in the 1970’s, perhaps even in the 1960’s. By the mid-1980’s, you see examples of clauses lacking both objects, and today’s set phrase becomes ordinary, if not common, by the early 1990’s. (Even today, you will hear the indirect object, but it’s no longer necessary.) I have a sense, based on very limited evidence, that it arose among African-Americans, but I didn’t pick up a clear trail to the origin of the phrase in Google Books.

The phrase is rarely used to mean “show gratitude to another person.” “Mom did a great job raising me and I wanted to give back, so I bought her a nice condo” doesn’t sound right somehow (but maybe it would if you established a scholarship fund in her name). Giving back entails an act of public charity or good works; it may be directed at a particular library, or school, or hospital, or to a whole system or network of them, or quite often “the community” at its most general — but the largesse still must be administered by some institution or other, so benefits to individuals are conferred indirectly.

I like the way this phrase casually but forcefully flies in the face of the variety of political orthodoxy that says it’s every man for himself, there’s no such thing as society or the common good. Like many orthodoxies, it is absurd on its face, but that doesn’t prevent lots of people from believing it, or using it where convenient to belabor the less fortunate. When celebrities say, “I want to give back,” they recognize an obligation to a large, undefinable group of people whose collective work has prepared the ground for them to make good. That’s called civil society, which contributes to each of our lives in a thousand mostly unacknowledged ways. We all exploit our communities for our own ends, and in return, we have to help keep them going. That’s a lot more sensible than pretending that greed and looking out for number one magically redound to the greater good.

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