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I came across the following sentence in today's NPR news:

In 2011, boomers start turning 65, the age when Americans traditionally stop working and kick back.

A dictionary at hand gives the definition of kick back as "1. (literally) kick back, retort. 2. pay rebate. 3. relapse into illness. 4. get relaxed, put oneself at home."

Interpretations 1 through 3 are understandable to me. But I don't understand why 'kick back' came to mean definition 4, "get relaxed, put oneself at home." What is the etymology for this expression?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 20 down vote accepted

"Kick back" can literally be used to describe the action of putting your legs up when you are sitting in a chair. So, if I "kick back" at my desk at work, I put my feet onto my desk, like this:

Kicking Back

This literal idea has been extended to talk about relaxing, sometimes even when no actual "kicking back" takes place.

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Thank you very much, Dear kosmonaut. It's really a conorehensive answer I've ever received. Your visual aid really helped me to grasp the meaning fully. –  Yoichi Oishi Jan 2 '11 at 0:40
    
Supposedly considered rude in some countries to point the soles of your feet towards someone... –  mplungjan Jan 31 '11 at 13:30
2  
@mplungjan -- Yeah, it's not that polite even in the US, but I'm told in Thailand, you might as well spit as the person as show them the soles of your shoes. Probably also true in notoriously anti-shoe Arabian country. And @Kosmonaut -- it ain't "kicking back" unless the front legs of your chair are off the ground. –  Malvolio Feb 19 '11 at 9:30
    
@YoichiOishi FYI, it's comprehensive rather than conorehensive. –  coleopterist Jul 25 '12 at 16:31
    
You don't necessarily have to put your feet up. Reclining back in the chair with arms behind the head and stretching out the legs is also known as "kicking back." I believe (no sources) that the relaxing meaning comes from "kicking back a gear/notch", which means to slow down or relax. Putting the feet up as well is an added strategy in western culture. –  Chris Oct 18 '12 at 4:53

As this NGram shows, "kick back and relax" has shot to prominence in the last decade or two.

But searching Google Books for "kick" shoes "and relax" from 1950-1990, I get about as many hits as I do for "kick" back "and relax".

I'm not going to analyse all the hundreds of instances of either, but I can easily see that both those two search terms often match the same citation. What this tells me is that the "original" version would have been something like...

Kick off your shoes, lie back, and relax.

...that's to say, it's something you do when you come home from a hard day's work (esp. if your job involves long periods standing on aching feet). But I do accept that in the minds of many today, it applies equally to "kicking back" in an office chair and putting your feet up on the desk (normally without taking your shoes off! :)

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Idioms don't have to make sense. They become their own definition and analyzing the individual words literally will never make sense. They become acceptable to us through repeated usage, to the point where our brain just accepts them without thinking about it.

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I don't see "kick back" as an idiom, but rather an allusion to literally kicking oneself back from the workbench. –  Michael Owen Sartin Nov 12 '13 at 18:08

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