English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I came across the phrase walked back from time.com:

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.”

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 a grammatically correct 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?

share|improve this question
    
I think I first heard it in the southern US as "walk that one back to the barn". – user95213 Oct 21 '14 at 21:47
    
It's not a common expression in the US Midwest -- I've head it once or twice, but that about it. May be more common in the rural South. – Hot Licks Oct 21 '14 at 22:18
up vote 3 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.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer

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).

share|improve this answer

I believe I've also heard the expression used in the context of the impossibility of undoing or unsaying something done or said, in which case it is said that "you can't walk that cat back," which refers to the impossibility of "herding cats," or getting them to do what you want.

share|improve this answer

It's one of my favorite idioms - walk back. I see it as being equivalent to saying "I didn't mean it like that" about a previous statement from which only one meaning can be derived, and then transparently reversing position. It is also similar to pulling a dog back from street crossing and walking the animal back to the curb to avoid jaywalking. It is clear that you and your dog meant to cross the street and then, when confronted by oncoming traffic, you walked your dog and yourself back to the safety of the curb.

share|improve this answer

As other answerers have said, the idiomatic use of "walk back" describes a backing off or distancing of oneself or one's organization from a statement that one (or it) has made on one's (or its) behalf that has drawn criticism and (often) widespread disapproval. It seems to be especially heavily used in political discussions and arguments.

Merriam-Webster Online doesn't offer a definition for "walk back" in this idiomatic sense, but it does have this entry for the phrase:

walk back intransitive verb : to ease back the fall of a hoisting-tackle while keeping it in hand

It's not impossible that someone familiar with this usage involving the controlled descent of a hoisting tackle might have applied it to a tactical revision of a political position, but most politicians and those who cover them are unlikely to find much resonance in the image of a pulley under hand control. Also, the political sense of "walk back" uses the verb transitively, not intransitively.

Two bits of evidence suggest that the idiomatic usage emerged fairly recently. First, Grant Barrett, The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004), which is dedicated to precisely the area of U.S. English where the phrase seems to have arisen, shows no awareness of its existence.

Second, a series of Google Books searches for particular phrases that incorporate "walk back" in the relevant sense go back no farther than 2013. For example, a search for the phrase "walk back his earlier" finds matches for the longer phrases "walk back his earlier thesis" (2013), "walk back his earlier use" (2014), "walk back his earlier statement" (2014) [relevant text not shown in snippet window], and "walk back his earlier assertion" (2015).

The earliest match for "walk back [one's] X" that I found in a series of Google Books searches may not be related to the idiomatic sense that Yoichi Oishi asks about. From Norman Ford, Good Night: The Easy and Natural Way to Sleep the Whole Night Through (1983) [combined snippets]:

You can reschedule your bedtime for any hour you choose. But you should not try to "walk back" your bedtime in increments greater than three hours daily. This usually means you must take seven days off from work to complete the process.

...

If you are able to successfully overcome NS by changing your sleep hours, you might consider experimenting with Technique 7 to "walk back" your body temperature rhythm to a more natural time.

Here "walk back" refers to a systematic, calibrated, interval-based shift over a period of days, figuratively resembling a series of even footsteps that take a person from an undesirable position back to a comfortable and effective one. This has some similarities to the recent political idiom, but it differs in one crucial way: the political "walk back" consistently involves an attempt to recalibrate a message based on unexpected problems with the previous message; thus it is essentially reactionary—a reaction to a reaction. In contrast, Ford's bedtime "walk back" is the product of proactive—not reactive—strategic planning.

The earliest instance of the political idiom that I could find is from Kenneth Timmerman, Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender (2007):

There was always a dead period between the time you [a reporter] finished a piece and when it came out, and that was when bad things happened. Sources went south. Documents leaked. Government officials panicked and started calling editors, furiously trying to walk back their indiscretions. But when he saw the title to Dana Priest's latest story, “Secret World of U.S. Interrogation,” he feared the worst. He had been scooped.

Other somewhat early instances appear in The Civil Liberties Legacy of Harry S. Truman (2012):

Truman's suggestion to the contrary stuck in the newspapermen's craw and gave ammunition to those who argued he was acting unreasonably. Indeed, Truman's press secretary, Joseph Short, later walked back the president's claim and granted that if the correspondents received news from official channels they could feel safe in running it.And yet the irritation lingered.

and in Carnes Lord, Proconsuls: Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today (2012):

It seems clear that Bremer arrived in Baghdad determined to walk back the administration's established policy concerning an early transition to Iraqi sovereignty. This entailed, however, an American occupation of Iraq lasting — so Bremer seems to have expected — many years, along the lines of the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan.


Conclusions

The image that "walk back" originally intended to invoke is a matter for speculation, but in current usage it refers to something like an orderly tactical withdrawal from a previously stated view, rather than to a headlong retreat amounting to a rout. The phrase does seem represent a greater distancing than is implied by the idiomatic phrase "step back from."

The earliest Google Books match I could find for "walk back" in its now-common idiomatic sense is in Timmerman's book from 2007—but the expression seems to have penetrated popular culture in the United States only in the pas five years.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.