Dear Word Detective: I’d like to put in a plug for “taken aback,” as opposed to its apparent replacement, “taken back.” I think this locution is the work of people who don’t quite “get” the original phrase and therefore assume that it, rather than their understanding, is deficient in some way. Thus they feel free to “fix” the problem based on their own extensive understanding of our native tongue. “Taken back” appears several times in the stage directions — not the dialogue — of the pilot script for a TV show that debuts in mid-September. I just finished reading it last night, and I winced every time I came across it. I could almost see putting it in the mouth of a character — to show how ill-educated he or she is. How a professional writer who was no doubt paid big bucks could commit such a crime against form and sense is beyond me. — Joe.
Scriptwriters, don’t you just love ‘em? Sometimes I think studios recruit them in shopping malls. Last week I was watching the new Fox series “Terra Nova,” in which people in 2149 travel back 85 million years to escape their dying civilization and to pet dinosaurs, when I heard one of the characters tell the hero, an ex-cop, that the new world needed more police officers “not so much.” It’s good to know that today’s trendy catch phrases will still be current in 138 years. Oh, well. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Whatever.”
I agree that finding “taken back” in stage directions is quite a bit worse than seeing it in dialogue. It’s actually very depressing, because it indicates that the person who wrote the script had heard (and perhaps misheard) the phrase, but apparently never read it, and you cannot have read much worth reading without encountering “aback.” If it’s any consolation, there seem to be a lot of people online reacting to “taken back” with shock and horror.
“Aback” first appeared in Old English as the adverbial phrase “on baec” meaning simply “to or at the rear,” describing either motion or position. (That “baec” also gave us our modern noun “back”) “Aback” was used in this sense in modern English, particularly in the phrases “to hold aback” (to restrain or hinder) and “to stand aback from” (to stand aloof from, or avoid). Both of these phrases shed the “a” prefix by the late 17th century, and today we just say “hold back” and “stand back.”
“Aback” in the modern sense found in the phrase “taken aback,” meaning “suddenly surprised” or “stopped by surprise,” is one of those rare English phrases that actually sprang from the decks of square-rigged sailing ships. A sailing ship is “taken aback” when, because of either a shift in the wind or an error by the crew, it is suddenly sailing directly into the wind and the sails are blown back against the masts, halting all progress. In the worst-case scenario, the ship is actually pushed backwards by the wind, which can be very dangerous, especially in rough weather.
The sailing phrase “taken aback,” with its connotation of a sudden reversal, was a perfect metaphor for that moment when the unexpected happens and the wind is suddenly figuratively blowing in your face, rocking you back on your heels (“I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life,” Dickens, 1842). This figurative use first appeared in the mid-19th century and “taken aback” has become so common an idiom that few people are aware of its nautical origins.
“Taken back,” on the other hand, at best has all the semantic impact of returning something to Target. The phrase “taken back,” unlike “taken aback,” has no single strong idiomatic meaning. It could apply to one person “taking back” a gift, an army “taking back” territory, a person “taking back” an insult to a friend, and so on. “Larry was taken aback by Laura’s accusation” is clear and vivid. “Larry was taken back by Laura’s accusation” is confusing nonsense. That a highly-paid scriptwriter apparently does not know the difference is both infuriating and depressing.