Watch your back! Idioms with the word ‘back’

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

five women, wearing blue jeans and white t-shirts, seen from behind against a white background
Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/GettyImages

by Liz Walter

There are an extraordinary number of phrases containing the word ‘back’, so today’s post will pick out some of the most useful ones, all of which use ‘back’ in the sense of a part of the body.

Several phrases make use of the idea that if someone is behind you, you can’t see them so you don’t know what they are doing. For example, if you do something behind someone’s back, you do it without them knowing about it. Similarly, if you do something while someone’s back is turned, you do it when they are not able to see or notice you:

His staff started whispering about him behind his back.

As soon as her back was turned, we crept out of the room.

The idea of not being able to see what is behind you also features in some phrases to do with possible danger or harm. For instance, if someone tells you to watch your back, they mean that you should be careful because people around you may harm you, either physically or in other ways. If you cover your back, you make sure you can’t be blamed or criticized for something at a later time and if someone you trusted stabs you in the back, they harm you when you do not deserve it:

You need to watch your back because you’ve upset lots of people around here.

I sent the documents to my boss, just to cover my back.

When my friend told my parents my secret, I felt she’d stabbed me in the back.

Informally, if someone is on your back, they are constantly criticizing you or forcing you to do things, but if you get someone off your back, you manage to stop them behaving in this way. If you have your back to the wall, you have some very serious problems and you don’t have many options about what you can do:

My parents are always on my back about getting a job.

I gave him the money just to get him off my back.

She didn’t want to fire her employees but she had her back to the wall.

I’ll finish with two nice phrases. First, if you say that you could do something with one arm/hand tied behind your back, you mean that it is very easy. And second, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours means that you will help someone if they help you:

My mum could make a cake like that with one arm tied behind her back.

There are plenty of ways we can help each other. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Do suggest any other ‘back’ phrases you know in the comments. Are there lots of phrases with ‘back’ in your own first language?

31 thoughts on “Watch your back! Idioms with the word ‘back’

  1. Денис

    Nicely written.
    I personally love the idiom ‘know something like the back of your hand’, which means to have very good and detailed knowledge of something.

    Kind regards

      1. Jayla

        No where I come from the saying is as written first. it is like the back of MY (your) hand. Not palm.

    1. Beshan

      Really nice phrases with the word „back“
      What I thought of was „like water off a duck‘s back“.
      I also like the phrase „back to back“. To do something in a row.
      To back up a car is also a phrase you can use daily.

    2. Kim

      Offended my back size:back size 55
      In been being lame my back size is always for sale weights scales and shopping malls. 🧐🥳🙄

    3. Liz Walter

      In the post, I only included ones with ‘back’ meaning the part of your body between your neck and your bottom, but yes, there are lots of other phrases with the word ‘back’, including more with that sense.

      1. Henry

        Hello Liz,
        Is there an idiomatic expression like the french one “j’en ai plein le dos”, meaning being tired or annoyed about things (job, people, activities,….) and feeling that sensation in the lower part of your back.

    4. Wojt

      Gosh! If every British always spoke like that! English would be so easy to understand…you could get it with one hand tied behind your back, or maybe one ear 😉 (not sure if that usage is 100% correct;) )

  2. Mario Tosti

    “Cammin facendo s’aggiusta la soma”, in Italian, is a metaphor which means that even if at the onset of a given enterprise the load you are shouldering is unevenly distributed, in time – “cammin facendo”, i.e. “as you go” – it will even out. Your metaphorical back will be somewhat relieved, that is.

    1. Hi,

      It’s rather surprising that no one has thus far thanked the author for embedding such a soothing transcript of the post!

      How very sweet of her to do so!

      Can never thank you enough, Liz Walter!!!

      1. Whoops!
        I’d been trying to cover my back by removing the word ‘transcript’, but unfortunately, I couldn’t! Pardon me, it ought to have been ‘audio’. Thanks again, Liz.

  3. mapyziakhotmailcom

    Dear Liz Walter
    Many thanks,
    It is such a grand thing to hear the author reading the text;-)
    I coudn’t possibly express how much I appreciate your amazing writing.
    Please, keep it up.
    Best regards,
    Mateusz Pyziak

  4. To have someone’s back means to be willing and prepared to support or help someone. Like, don’t worry, I’ll have your back no matter what.
    Btw, it’s great that this post has an audio version.

  5. Adriana

    Thank you Liz Walter,
    As a person who’s English is my second language, this is very interesting and I love hearing your voice.
    In my opinion the work “back” is being over used, English is such a beautiful and extensive language and I feel there are other words we can use instead of back

  6. Liz Walter

    Thanks for all your kind comments on the audio recording, which is a new feature. My colleague Kate Woodford will be reading her posts too. Like most people, I hate the sound of my own voice (!) but it’s great to hear that it’s useful!

    1. Elaine Andrade

      Hello Liz!!!

      That’s extremely useful because we can hear how it sounds when a native speaker reads the text. I’ve just loved this new feature and I’ll be checking new posts for sure. Thanks a ton!!

  7. Anil

    In India, ‘who has your back when in trouble?’ is rather common these days. I find it rather far-fetched. Could you tell us more?

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