When (and why) did we begin saying—earnestly, everywhere—“I’ve got your back”? The phrase seems to pop up in conversations around me at least once a day, though that might be partly a matter of my working in higher ed, where backs seem to be unnaturally in need of protection.
I’ve seen the expression in New York subway ads. It pops up on sitcoms. On an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon promises to have Leonard’s back in the pursuit of a big gift for scientific equipment (wealthy widow, barracuda smile). They get the grant, but Sheldon doesn’t do much in the matter of Leonard’s back.
Back-having has a long history, if not by that specific name. Henry II could have cried out “Doesn’t anyone have my back?” rather than “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” though his stooges might have replied that Thomas à Becket was unlikely to catch him up in the rhomboideus major.
An Internet trawl suggests differing opinions as to the origin and meaning of the phrase, ranging from military formations in which men fought back to back to the more generalized sense of supporting, as in “I’ll always be there for you.” One might note that that particular turn of phrase seems to have replaced the vanilla “I’m on your side” by adding a sentimental appeal to eternal presence (“always”).
I haven’t been able to come up with a reliable source for “I’ve got your back,” though perhaps a Lingua Franca reader will have a good historical marker to propose. A Google Ngram viewer points to a cultural turn just before the year 2000.
Since the beginning of the millennium, occurrences of the phrase “having my back” seem to have lagged slightly behind those for “having your back,” which might be a clue to the more frequent use the use of the phrase as a mark of the speaker’s offer of protection to another rather than the desire to be protected.
But what kind of protection is at stake? Having (or getting) your back means more than supporting your opinion (“To Tom’s surprise, Enid voted against his proposal to change the antimacassars in the faculty tea lounge. She didn’t have his back.”) The phrase is urgent and personal and also beautifully vague.
The most persuasive sign that “I’ve got your back” has achieved status as a truism, though, is its promotion into the world of T-shirts and coffee mugs. The online retailer Café Press offers a range of items playing on the figure of “having your back.” But the site’s merchandise has given the phrase a gruesome twist—a pair of stick figures, one of whom has removed from the other the vertical stroke that stands in for the spinal column. Droplets of red ink imitate blood.
[Note to self: The T-shirt is available in Kids X-Small.]
Today’s lesson: When novelty kids’ clothing takes control of an expression, it may be time to acknowledge it — whatever exactly it may mean — as always already ironic.
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