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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

walk back

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “retract,” “backpedal on,” “back down from,” “tone down,” “mitigate”)

It does not apply to dogs, horses, or bicycles, or tracing a stream to its source. Nor does it mean the same thing as “walk away from,” although there are situations in which either phrase could aptly be used. Not to mention “back away from,” which is pretty close — same sense of moving cautiously and disassociating yourself from the subject at hand, effectively the opposite of talking back. “Walk back” does not mean “turn back” or even “turn one’s back on,” although, once again, there are moments when you might be excused for detecting them in the background. To confuse matters further, it sometimes is used to mean “restore to a previous state,” or even “turn things around.” In these cases the expression adds a temporal dimension to “back” that is only implicit in its more common manifestation.

It’s what you do when you or one of your colleagues exaggerates, or says something stupid, or goes off the rails, although the phrase is generally applied to statements or policies rather than faux pas of other kinds. You do it when you have to, but no one ever enjoys walking it back. Because it always applies to some sort of disavowal, it may be used neutrally or scornfully, but walking back a statement or policy is not sold as a principled act even by the most brazen politicians. It may be presented as an explanation or clarification, however. It is closely connected to “damage control,” and less obviously related to lowering expectations (also a political term of abuse), when it is done to temper a far-reaching policy announcement (or leak). The phrase “walk it back” means “eat one’s words,” when you’re overruling yourself, or “clean up after . . .” if it’s someone else. Simply enough, the act of walking back is a “walkback” (sometimes hyphenated).

One point of semantic interest about “walk back”: It makes it easy to introduce the idea of a partial renunciation of what you said yesterday. So you might read that an official, or spokesperson, walked back her comments a bit, meaning she stands by most of what she said but has rethought an insignificant part of it. The phrase “partial retraction” has been around for a while, but today’s alternative seems folksier and pleasanter. Politicians are always on the lookout for ever more delicate ways of wiggling out of whatever inconvenient thing they said last week or last year.

Sen. Chuck Hagel traced the expression to “State Department parlance” in 2002, and LexisNexis bears him out. The earliest instances I found in LexisNexis date from the mid-1980’s, invariably in the context of international relations. Our president, or someone else’s president, says something radical (by mistake, of course), and the diplomats have to get out there and walk it back. Politicians and journalists used it now and then during the 1990’s, but it remained insider vocabulary at least until 2000, when it became more common among officials while starting to appear in other contexts. Even now, the phrase is far more comfortable in political discourse than anywhere else, but it can be used naturally in legal contexts, or in discussions of corporate policy, or even on the sports page. The phrase jumped in frequency with Obama’s rise in 2008, even though I don’t associate it with him. Even a moderately active news consumer might still not have absorbed the expression by the beginning of 2008, but he surely had by the beginning of 2010.

The diplomatic origin of the expression is fairly clear, but why “walk back,” anyway? My best guess is that it’s a transitive variation on “backtrack,” which was already common in political reporting before 1980. Not invariably, but often, it was used to mean “renege on an earlier commitment or position,” which would make it a clear forerunner of today’s expression. Pat Buchanan (McLaughlin Group, 2009) offered an elaboration that I doubt points to an origin, but might: “this cat is out of the bag and he [Eric Holder] can’t walk it back.” (That refreshing touch of the literal is hard to resist when you’re creating folk etymologies.) Doesn’t “walk back” just sound like diplomatic language? Not “roll back,” “push back,” or “cross out” (much less “strike out”). Even if we have to weasel out of absolutely everything the boss said yesterday, we’ll make it sound like we’re strolling home from the park. Diplomats are famous for this sort of thing. Compare “frank exchange of views,” which means “heated argument.”


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