“On the back foot”

Reader Richard Raiswell, of Prince Edward Island, Canada, writes:

You don’t seem to have done “on the back foot”. This (I think) comes from cricket and refers to a defensive shot which also has some attacking merit. I have heard it creeping into use in US English recently.

Well, yes. You need only look at today’s Chicago Tribune to find it in a baseball article: “In Oakland, starter Travis Blackley tossed six solid innings while his offense scratched out enough runs to seize their fifth straight win and put the Rangers (93-68) on the back foot.”

Then there’s this, from an early September post on NewsBusters, a blog dedicated to “exposing & combating liberal media bias”: “New York Times campaign reporter Ashley Parker tried to put Mitt Romney on the back foot from the opening sentence of her article on his speech to the National Guard convention in Reno.”

But in the Times itself, you have to go back to March 2011 to find a non-sporting, non-direct-quote back foot: “Activist investors generally prefer to be on the attack. So it’s odd to see them on the back foot, fighting to preserve an important arrow in their quiver.”

Interesting that these uses don’t appear to conform with Richard’s notion that the phrase suggests a ploy that “has some attacking merit.” I am sure that readers will weigh in with their thoughts on this matter. As for NOOB status, it appears that on the back foot is only on the radar at this point. Time will tell if it has (sorry) legs.

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15 responses to ““On the back foot”

  1. My understanding of “on the back foot” is that it connotes a position of weakness, as in a person that has been forced back but is trying to defend themselves. To get someone on the back foot is to get an advantage against them.

    • Agreed – I’ve never heard this used with *any* positive connotation.

      • Whilst not a positive connotation I wonder if the confusion comes from it sometimes being used prior to a comeback, like “He fought like a man possessed after being forced on to the back foot”.

  2. I’ve never really understood why this cricketing term should come to mean “defensive”. In cricket, it simply denotes a particular type of scoring (that is, attacking) shot. Front foot or back foot is all to do with the way a batsman transfers his weight at the moment of playing the shot, and this in turn has a lot to do with whether the delivery is full length or short (how far down the wicket it pitches). A fullish length delivery is likely to see the batsman coming forward (transferring weight onto the front foot), and therefore playing a front foot shot. A shorter length delivery will tend to make the batsman move onto the back foot. It is in no sense defensive; take a look at footage of the great Viv Richards if you don’t believe me.

  3. It’s definitely a cricket expression, but I wonder if there’s a boxing – or even fencing – derivation as well?

  4. As a first time Brit commenter (and a recent and delighted discoverer of this blog), I agree that “on the back foot” has no positive connotation in ordinary speech, even if that is not the case in its cricketing origin. As Chris Walsh says, front and back foot simply refer to where the batsman’s weight is and there are attacking and defensive front and back foot shots. I think the metaphorical idea is that the batsman would like to play on the front foot and the bowler has forced him onto the back foot, but that’s not necessarily true.

  5. I’d always taken this to mean being forced off balance.
    Figuratively meaning you’re responding to circumstance rather than dictating it, which diesn’t quite overlap with the defensive offensive idea.
    Chris Walsh is right that the reality of the game doesn’t neatly fit the expression either, but then Viv Richards isn’t a good example for the normal run of play for he was not a mere mortal but a sporting God!!

  6. Definitely no connection to fencing (speaking as a former, somewhat competitive fencer). Every fencing move begins off the back foot, so that phrase never actually comes up in fencing. (For the same reason, I would expect that any phrase based on the fencing usage would have a positive connotation.)

  7. I’m sure you’re correct about fencing – and come to think of it, the boxing expression is “on the ropes” (of course). Re cricket, for those who know the game, think of a situation where a fast bowler is bowling “short” at 90 mph. If you’re not on the “back foot” you’ll be in danger of losing your front teeth!

    • In my view, Bill, you are spot-on with your interpretation. Of course the great players can play attacking shots from the back foot, but to the tactic of putting a batsman on the back foot means that the bowler is trying to force him to defend or suffer a very painful injury as the ball bounces at pace at chest or head height.

  8. There is an American usage of the term “back foot” referring, usually, to a quarterback in American football not stepping forward when he attempts to throw a pass. It’s considered poor technique unless the quarterback is under pressure, since it frequently results in a weakly thrown, often under-thrown pass that can be batted down or intercepted. Not sure if this is related, since it is a literal use rather than any kind of figurative one, but the term is not entirely unknown in North America.

  9. While a batsman can score runs from front and back foot strokes, the metaphor works because a front foot stroke is attacking and proactive: the batsman is going out of his way to attack the bowler. In a back foot stroke the player is much more reactive, falling back on his heels to leverage the attacker’s aggression.

  10. There is a difference in cricket between playing ‘off’ the back foot, which can result in a stylish, premeditated attacking shot, and being forced ‘onto’ the back foot, which implies a hurried retreat into a defensive pose. Being ‘on the back foot’ implies the latter.

  11. Pingback: Can cricket jargon help to create a better and more inclusive Australia? « Pip Marks

  12. I’ve just heard “You don’t parley off the back foot: (Peaky Blinders), which means that you don’t negotiate from a weak position (you counter-attack).

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