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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

back atcha

(1990’s | “the same to you,” “likewise, I’m sure,” “it’s mutual”)

As I look into the origins of this phrase, I keep having the feeling that I’m missing something. It doesn’t show up in LexisNexis until the early 1990’s, and then it had more to do with getting back at someone — vengeance or returning fire — than with returning a compliment, which is how we’re more likely to use it today. Perhaps LexisNexis does not have the best data to mine for this rather slangy expression, which has not shed its hipness entirely as it has spread. I had an insurmountable feeling that I had seen it in Doonesbury during my childhood but despaired of digging through my old books to try to find it. Then Google worked one of its little miracles (miroogles?), and within five minutes, I was looking at a comics page from December 4, 1974. Joanie Caucus is greeted by her roommate’s boyfriend, and she replies, “Mornin’ back atcha, Clyde!” I would have guessed Zonker or Mark would have been the one to use it. Nearly forty years later, Garfield supplies an example of how we do it today.

Joanie’s utterance exemplifies syntax that is still pretty common: “back atcha” preceded by a greeting or certain nouns (e.g., love, hugs). “Right back atcha” is a common variant. But “back atcha” can stand on its own, as a friendly reply, or still occasionally hostile, even today. That shading didn’t start to fade until after 2000, and you still hear it sometimes.

Widely scattered sightings in Google Books go back to the 1970’s. I didn’t pick up a clear trail to an origin. African-Americans? Teenagers? Hippies? but there seems to have been some pop music push down through the years. A disco duo called Two Tons o’ Fun (later known as the Weather Girls) released an album entitled “Back Atcha” in 1980. (I didn’t remember the album, but I did remember “I’m So Excited,” one of their hits.) In the 1990’s, hip-hop artist Freq Nasty released “Booming Back Atcha” (1997), and probably more decisively for its general spread, the Spice Girls had a song called “Right Back Atcha” in 2000. It wasn’t a big hit, though, and it didn’t provoke a stunning spike in the use of the phrase.

As I noted recently, some new expressions really just don’t seem necessary, inasmuch as we had so many ways to say the same thing before. “Back atcha” falls into that category. (Since I quoted some comic strips already, I’ll throw in my favorite mid-century pre-back-atcha objurgation, from Pogo: “The same to you with sour apples on it!”) Aside from the examples above, you could return the favor, or concur, or append “yourself” to a recently expressed greeting (that one could also be pleasant or menacing), or in those fraught childhood moments, “I’m rubber and you’re glue!” “Back atcha” has an undeniable appeal. Quick and sassy, cheerful and brisk, lean and menacing, it can be cutting or welcoming. It’s the kind of phrase that could get annoying if you heard it all the time, but it hasn’t taken over yet — because there are so many other ways to say it. It hasn’t filled a void so much as jumped into a crowded pool.

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