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Back to Back ‘Back’

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“Walk back the cat”refers to  a boat’s cat-davit (crane in the bow).

When it comes to forming idioms and slang expressions, few words are more productive than back. It accounts for 12½ pages in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, from back (a weaker drink to go along with a stronger one, as in “a whiskey with a beer back”) to backyard (n. [US] the buttocks, esp. in the context of anal sex.”) In the Beatles catalog alone, there’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Get Back,” and, among other pop song titles, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want You Back,” and “Baby Got Back.”

But the one inescapable back-formation this campaign season is seen in the following headlines, all posted in the last 30 days:

  • “WSJ: Donald Trump energy adviser walks back candidate’s comments on fracking” (The Denver Post)
  • “Donald Trump Walks Back Apparent Clinton Assassination Threat” (Vanity Fair)
  • “Trump walks back his claim that he saw a plane carrying ransom money to Iran” (Los Angeles Times)
  • “Trump walks back his call for Russia to hack Clinton: ‘I’m being sarcastic’” (Raw Story)
  • “Trump walks back claim Obama ‘founded’ ISIS” (Salon)

The last one is interesting. In his retreat from the Obama-founded-Isis claim, Trump said, “Obviously I’m being sarcastic … but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.” That led John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight to observe, “He walked his walkback back!”

Though walk back is now and probably forever tied to Trump, journalists often apply it to others, and it’s easy to see why. The phrase reflects speakers’ reluctance to say “I lied” or “I was wrong,” and it allows for different degrees: One can walk a statement a little way back, or halfway back, or all the way back. There is probably more of a call for walking back now than ever before, not because people are wrong more often but because their statements can be easily and instantaneously checked.

For all its popularity, the phrase is relatively new and isn’t listed in any online or on-(my)-shelf dictionaries. The first use I’ve been able to find came from the mouth of Morton Kondracke, speaking on Fox News in February 2006:

Harry Reid is almost permanently over the top. He goes over the top time and time again. And then he is forced to apologize. He accused 33 of his colleagues of being crooks a couple weeks ago, or his staff did. He was forced to retract. He sort of walked back a little bit from this today.

The phrase picked up steam in the  2008 presidential campaign — for example, when newspapers reported that John McCain, the Republican candidate, “walked back” something his running mate, Sarah Palin, had said about sending troops to Pakistan.

But it really took off the following year, based on a single incident. After the Cambridge, Mass., police handcuffed the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his front steps, President Obama said they “acted stupidly.” Two days later, the president said he still considered the arrest “an overreaction,” but added, “Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” he went on. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”

It was the prototypical walkback, and newspapers throughout the country ran an article about the remarks with the headline:  “Obama Walks Back Criticism on Gates Arrest.”

You can tell the expression had reached catchphrase status in the 2012 presidential campaign, based on what the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had to say about the Republican candidate’s position on covering patients with pre-existing conditions: “Romney has announced that he would guarantee coverage; walked that back; walked back the walkback; and it seems, walked back the walkback of the walkback.”

Expressions rarely emerge out of nowhere, and Kondracke, or whoever was the first to use “walk back” in its current sense, didn’t just make it up. It seems to have emerged from an older expression, “walking back the cat” (or “walking the cat back”). William Safire, in his Safire’s Political Dictionary (2008), gives two definitions: “In diplomacy, retreating from a negotiating position; in intelligence gathering, examining old analyses in light of new information.”

The spycraft one gets used a lot in John LeCarré’ work; Walking Back the Cat is the title of a 1997 spy novel by Robert Littell. From Ward Just’s 2007 novel Forgetfullness: “Bernhard had been called back to headquarters for a conference, a general review of current operations with special attention to methods and sources, connecting dots while they walked back the cat, a dispirited and dispiriting exercise.”

The other definition is the relevant one for this discussion. Safire cites a 1977 quote from the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, raising the possibility that the U.S. arms negotiator Paul Warnke would “begin ‘walking back the cat’ on the Carter SALT package, unless checked by the President himself.’”

Evans and Novak’s use of quotation marks suggests they felt the metaphor was relatively unfamiliar and new. But it was used (also with quotation marks) as far back as 1964. Google Books has a tantalizing unattributed snippet from a book published that year entitled Government Contracts and Procurement: Current Trends. “Obviously the Attorney General, to use an old Navy expression, ‘walked the cat back.’ He stated that title should be taken only when the government pays all costs; where the government pays less, the division should be subject to negotiation.”

And that old Navy expression? Merriam-Webster’s defines cat davit as “the forward bow davit of a ship,” and davit as a “crane that projects over the side of a ship.” In a 1930 Collier’s short story, a naval officer proclaims, “Walk back the cat!” (which also serves as the story’s title). The author describes it as “a threadbare service phrase,” apparently meaning to use the davit to raise the anchor to the ship’s deck.

There the trail ends. How a literal nautical expression turned into an enduring metaphor will remain a mystery. Unless, of course, I or someone finds a smoking-gun quotation, in which case I will have to walk back that statement.

Next: another inescapable back phrase.

[[Image from Page 1013 of "The Encyclopædia britannica; a dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information" (1910) via the Internet Archive. The image was found thanks to Wordnik's definition of cat-davit. ]]

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