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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

back story

(1990’s | journalese (film) | “past history,” “background”, “exposition”)

The odd appearance before 1980 aside, this phrase started to show up in arts journalism, specifically film-related, in the mid-1980’s. People who read movie reviews soon became thoroughly familiar with the term, but “back story” didn’t really start spreading until after 2000. It’s the spread that makes the phrase interesting, I suppose. Some new expressions slip quietly into a helpful niche without attracting much attention. We start using them without thinking about it, and they retain a clearly circumscribed definition. Others find their niche and then keep going to fill the whole wall.

When arts writers first used the term, it had a very specific meaning. Only a fictional character could have a back story, and it was simply what had happened to the character before the story at hand started. More narrowly defined by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times (October 31, 1994): “the events that initially shaped their [the characters’] fates.” It might be revealed as the story goes along, or it might have to be invented later as a prequel. Or it may have nothing to do with the script; it might be invented by the actor as an exercise to help fashion the portrayal. It’s even more fictional than the fiction, in other words.

But now the phrase has become commonplace and expanded to apply to real people, or objects, for that matter, even abstractions like social movements or concepts. It’s how things came to be, any information about the past that helps explain the present state of affairs (that is, a back story is a just-so story). Sometimes, the expression carries a haze of mystery about it, promising a revelation you must absorb before you can really understand the plot. But a back story may be perfectly straightforward and predictable, too.

The spread to real people and situations seems inevitable, because the way we encounter new people in fiction is very similar to how we do it in life. We meet new people all the time, and our first encounter is always a short clip from a long film. When new people actually enter our lives, we learn more about them, the epochs of their past, the experiences that shaped them. A character in a good book or movie works the same way. You need to find out what makes them tick, and that secret lurks only in their past — like anyone you meet on the street.


(1980’s | journalese (arts))

Somewhere out there lives someone who uttered this word for the first time, who used it for the first time in print. But how could you be sure? It seems to have begun seeping into the language during the late 1970’s, with a couple of specific milestones: the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion (1977) and the release of the film “Butch and Sundance: The Early Years” (1979). It was a handy, easily grasped word, one that the cognoscenti latched onto. More on the Tolkien connection: One of a very few prehistoric (pre-1970) uses in Google Books comes from Lin Carter’s A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (1969), in which he credits “the science fiction fan community” for inventing the term.

It’s a prequel if it was written later, a post hoc amplification of a successful fictional story (or franchise, as we would say nowadays). You make a movie, and it’s a hit. Your audience yearns to know what happened before the movie started, so you give them a prequel. The second Star Wars trilogy is a classic example. (I don’t care what anyone says; “Star Wars” was the first Star Wars movie, not the fourth. I don’t want to hear this “New Hope” bullshit, either.)

The Tolkien connection is meaningful for me, because I was a snotty twelve-year-old and ardent student of Middle Earth when the Silmarillion came out. I made my mother drive me to the mall so I would be first in line at Gordon’s Booksellers when they opened the cartons and started selling the books. And, by God, I was. I must have learned the word “prequel” right around then, although I don’t remember doing so.

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