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I came across the phrase “a State Department spokesperson had walked back his (John Kerry’s) comments in the Time magazine’s (August 2) article titled, “Oops: John Kerry gaffes, Washington backpedals.” http://swampland.time.com/2013/08/02/oops-john-kerry-gaffes-washington-backpedals/#ixzz2aqtJvoJJ

The article deals with Secretary of States’ remarks about the drone campaign in Pakistan on a press interview:

“I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said. “I think the President has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” Was Kerry announcing a dramatic policy shift? Nope. Within hours a State Department spokesperson had walked back his comments, saying: “This was in no way indicating a change in policy…. I have no exact timeline to provide.”

As I wasn’t quite familiar with the case of using ‘walk back’ in such a context as denying or distancing one’s comments, I checked Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster online English Dictionary. None of them shows “walk back” as an idiom, though they show “call back, look back, talk back, walkout, walk through, walk up,” and so on.

I’m puzzled about the expression, “walk back his comment,” because I understand ‘walk’ is an intransitive verb that doesn’t take objective noun (here, his comments). Is this grammatically right expression? Though the word, 'backpedal' in the headline gave me a hint, what does ‘a spokesperson had walked back his comments’ exactly mean?

Is “walk back” an idiom in this case, and used very often in such a way as “walk back” one’s comment / idea / policy / promise / stand / connection, or person?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I've often heard walk back used idiomatically to mean backpedal from or retract a statement or promise.

A search of the Corpus shows that using walk back in this way is more often spoken rather than written.

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When a politician walks back a statement they have made, it typically means that they add some additional remarks that are ostensibly intended to clarify (and often make more palatable) some ill-considered words. In this case, it was a State Department official who took on the job of cleaning up (walking back) Kerry's messed-up message.

The term creates a mental picture for me of an elderly person who is about to step out in front of a car being physically held back by a carer and led back to the safety of the sidewalk.

I'm not certain when this usage first began to be popular, but I don't think I heard it being used earlier than about five years ago. If it really is a recent coinage, that would explain its absence from the dictionaries you consulted. It is also my perception that it is much more commonly heard in the USA than in Britain.

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Walk back in the case means clarify into order to lessen the impact of Kerry's words and make sure they aren't misinterpreted. Because if you read what Kerry said, it sounds like he's thinking about ending the drone program, when in reality, he's saying at the end of the drone program (whenever the end is).

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