‘Back’ Again


Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. (Photo: Doug Pensinger /Allsport)

Last week I wrote about the vogue for walking back statements. Ready for another back idiom? I got your back.

Right, that’s it, I got your back. It’s not a new thing — my Lingua Franca colleague William Germano took note of it in 2013 — but over the last year or so it has grown like Topsy. It is pretty much everywhere, and it is used in every possible context. A couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “I want to make it clear that as Scranton has always had my back, we, in fact, all of us are going to have your back, Hillary.” Ashton Kutcher, Olympics fan, wrote on Instagram, “Go team USA!!! We got your back.” Early in August, President Obama told residents of Flint, Mich., “I’ve got your back.” And Teen Vogue posted, “If the historic 2016 election is your first time voting in a presidential race, Google’s got your back. Starting today, you can google ‘how to vote,’ and the search engine will break down the voting process based on your home state.”

All over the world, backs are being had. A Google News search for “got your back” yields 89,000 hits. That’s not to mention the other forms, like “have your back,” “got my back,” and so on.

The origins of the phrase are intriguingly murky. Everyone I asked in a random poll said they thought it started in the military, but that doesn’t appear to be true. There is in fact a comparable phrase, “got your six”; according to Got Your Six (a veterans’ support organization), it originated among World War I fighter pilots, in reference to the six o’clock — or rear — position. But I haven’t been able to find any uses of it before the 21st century.

A more solid etymology starts in African-American slang. Garson O’Toole, in a post on a linguists’ listserv, offered a quote from Melvin Van Peebles’s The Making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1972): “The deal was he would watch my back legal-wise, and I would teach him all I knew mogul-wise.”

That’s already a metaphor: Watch my back=be on the lookout for and protect me against hazards and antagonists I might not be aware of. Slang, in its genius, added another layer of abstraction and replaced the concrete watch with the ontological have, or got. The first citation for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from James De Jongh’s 1975 play Hail Hail the Gangs!, about a black teenager who joins a Harlem street gang: “Two of them and one of you, but I got your back. Kick both of them in the ass.”

It still seemed to be an African-American thing in 1987, when The Washington Post reported:

Two years ago, John Thompson and his Georgetown [basketball] team went to Hawaii. Out sightseeing, the coach and some players suddenly found they had walked into a tough avenue, populated by 800-pound, one-eyed drug dealers. Large Hoyas players began to peel off, their feet following the path of wisdom back to a nicer part of town. The gigantic coach, a neighborhood of one, kept walking, obliviously, until hostile voices asked why he was on their turf.

Only one Georgetown player was left beside his coach — a skinny kid named Perry McDonald. “Don’t worry, coach,” whispered the 175-pound freshman, whose head didn’t come to Thompson’s shoulder. “I got your back covered.”

Thompson loves to tease McDonald, who’s now 6 feet 4 and 195 pounds, asking him, “Still got my back, Perry?”

Then, in 1993, Dr. Dre released “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” with the immortal line, “My [expletive] homie Doggy Dog has my back.”

That was roughly the point when the phrase started its ascent. In 1994, it appeared nine times in the ProQuest newspaper database. In 2015 the number was 823.

Why is it so popular now? Have your back may not have originated in the military, but its state-of-siege feel is suited to the present moment. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last year, 40 percent of respondents said that national security should be the country’s No. 1 priority. (“Job creation and economic growth” was second, at 23 percent.) More than a quarter of respondents said they worried that they or their family would be a victim of a terror attack. And 71 percent said mass shootings and random acts of violence were now “a permanent part of American life.”

Our fears aren’t limited to mass murders and terrorism. We are antsy and anxious about scary diseases like Ebola and Zika, about Mexicans streaming over the border to rape and pillage (and steal jobs, to boot), about hundred-year floods and raging wildfires that, come to think of it, may have something to do with climate change after all. Some of these fears have a solid base in facts, others not as much. But the fears themselves are real and pervasive.

I got your back suggests we are living in a time when bad things are continuously coming from behind, and when everybody could use a watchful wingman ready to spot them, and, in the manner of a video game, wipe them out.





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