The following is a multiple choice question in an English test paper:

He turned his back on them when they most needed him.

The italicized part means:

A. criticized
B. ignored
C. betrayed
D. deceived

I know that "turn one's back on" can mean "refuse to help". I just wonder, of B and C, which one is closer to its meaning in this sentence.

The word "ignore" in its relevant sense gives me the impression of "doing or saying nothing while something should be done or said", while "turn one's back on" and "betray" imply a kind of action, such as desertion or refusal.

Which one would you choose? and why?

closed as off-topic by anongoodnurse, tchrist, RyeɃreḁd, RegDwigнt Apr 27 '14 at 10:02

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  • 3
    Please google (with quotation marks) "turn one's back on" meaning, doodoofree. – anongoodnurse Apr 27 '14 at 1:05
  • I know that "turn one's back on" can mean "refuse to help". I just wonder, of B and C, which one is closer to its meaning in this sentence. – doodoofree Apr 27 '14 at 1:29
  • Did you google it? Because the answer is on the very top of the page. If you do so, and still have a question, identify the problem you're having, and I will do my personal best to help you asap. – anongoodnurse Apr 27 '14 at 1:36
  • It seems the results of google searching are not the same in different countries. what I got here on the first page are explanations of the expression in Chinese, which are not of much help to me in this specific case. – doodoofree Apr 27 '14 at 1:45
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    The word "ignore" in its relevant sense gives me the impression of "doing or saying nothing while something should be done or said", while "turn one's back on" and "betray" imply a kind of action, such as desertion or refusal. What do you think? – doodoofree Apr 27 '14 at 2:00

@doodoofree I agree with your choice of 'C. betrayed'.

The word 'ignore' would be appropriate without "when they most needed him." in the sentence. The speaker his cognoscente of the betrayal, and thus it is 'betrayed'


Context is important. To turn one's back on can seem to mean different things depending on how it's used.

Buglioni, 24, has turned his back on university to try to achieve his dreams and says he is in a rush to keep climbing the domestic and world rankings [of boxing].

Here, it's clear he is not betraying university, but simply not embracing it as he does boxing. He's ignoring university.

Obama ‘Has Turned His Back’ on Israel, Santorum Says

Somewhat dramatic, but Santorum has his eye on the presidency. Clearly he intends to imply Obama has betrayed Israel.

Prince Charles turned his back on Sir Salman Rushdie during his fatwa over publication of The Satanic Verses because he thought the book was offensive to Muslims, it has been claimed.

Prince Charles did not have a personal relationship with Rushdie; he simply refused to get involved in the whole affair. Here, it's clear that it means ignored

Offensive lineman John Moffitt... decided to walk away mid season. Unhappy with football, the 27-year-old turned his back on more than a million dollars in salary.

Can you betray money? No. His teammates were all supportive of Moffitt's decision to leave football. Did he betray his team? No. Football fans? They might think so, but then, they have unrealistic expectations.

Thesaurus.com gives the top synonyms for turn one's back on: deny; say no; decline; ignore; protest; rebuff; reject; turn down; withdraw; withhold. Betray is not listed in ~50 synonyms.

The take home message is that you can't always tell the meaning of a word from context. Turn one's back on means to ignore/walk away/reject.

Your reasoning is quite good, but in this case, the dictionary meaning is very important. Betray is stronger and more menacing. The top 5 synonyms for betray are: abandon, deceive, forsake, mislead and seduce.

He turned his back on them when they most needed him. The italicized part means____. A. criticized B. ignored C. betrayed D. deceived

Since you don't know all the circumstances here, and it's easy to go wrong by context (I think this is deliberately misleading), I would stick with the dictionary definition: ignore.

  • 1
    Especially since the available context does not show to whom "they" could have been betrayed. – andy256 Apr 27 '14 at 3:11

This is a tricky question. The option I would most like to see listed is rejected, because ignored seems too passive and betrayed too active. Rejected has many uses, from the neutral and professional rejected proposal to the personal and emotionally-charged to feel rejected. I think this ambiguity is part of what makes rejected an apt answer when given little context.

medica presents a compelling case for ignored. And Third News observes that "when they most needed him" emphasizes the dependence of the supplicants on the party who refuses to help, giving a sense of implicit (or previously established) obligation whose terms have been breached; it seems fair to me to call this betrayal. I would like to suggest that betrayal too, even without "when they most needed him," is an acceptable answer.

The first example of the phrase in popular use that came to mind is from Disney's "The Lion King":

Timon: Look, kid. Bad things happen, and you can't do anything about it. Right?

Young Simba: Right.

Timon: Wrong! When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.

Some background: Simba is a young lion who runs away from his pride (or herd), because he holds himself responsible for the death of his father, the king and leader of the pride. Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and warthog) are self-described outcasts who find Simba and invite him to join their group when they learn he is running from his past. Timon uses the above quote to persuade him to do so.

In explaining what he means by this, Timon starts the song Hakuna Matata, which reveals Pumbaa's story:

[Pumbaa] found his aroma lacked a certain appeal

He could clear the Savannah after every meal

I'm a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned

And it hurt that my friends never stood downwind

And oh, the shame, he was ashamed

Thoughta changin' my name, oh, what's in a name?

And I got downhearted, how did you feel?...

While there are cases for being ignored in Pumbaa's (neighbors ignored or eschewed him because of his aroma) and Simba's (fears of his pride ignoring his insistence that he didn't mean for his father to die) scenarios, I feel the ones for betrayal are good too.

If we assume sensitive soul Pumbaa (who is kind throughout the film) made a point of accepting his friends despite their faults, then it is easy to see how Pumbaa might feel betrayed: His friends could not bring themselves to even pretend (for Pumbaa's sake) that his odor was a non-issue, that they valued his company more than their comfort.

Timon is suggesting that Simba feels victim to a similar bum wrap, that Simba's world (his herd) will offer neither forgiveness nor reprieve for his mistake, perhaps thinking that Simba did it intentionally in order to become king himself. To see the betrayal in this situation, consider M-W's definition of betray:

3: to fail or desert especially in time of need: betrayed his family

How can Simba be a member of the pride, let alone its leader, if fellow members entertain such suspicions about him? To be an equal, he needs them to accept his pleas of innocence as true.

Timon's response? Betray them back. Desert them like they deserted you. This is what Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba kind of do when they run away and become a tribe of their own.

From the same MW link, to betray means:

to hurt (someone who trusts you, such as a friend or relative) by not giving help or by doing something morally wrong

While the quote doesn't say that the supplicants were hurt, it does say that they were in need and that help was refused. TFD cites The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition when it defines "turn (one's) back on" as:

turn (one's) back on

  1. To deny; reject.

  2. To abandon; forsake.

The words abandon and forsake are in Thesaurus.com's top picks for synonyms for betray.

In the end, I think given the situation answers C and D are equally justifiable. Without an answer key, I would resort to chance in choosing an answer.

  • I think you make some excellent points. (I also voted to re-open.) However, I think this might be a case of purposefully misleading the test-taker. Usually on standardized tests, there are questions that only the best test takers will answer correctly. I have no idea if ESL tests do this, but I know all standardized tests that I've taken or administered do. The top percentile has to earn it. – anongoodnurse Apr 28 '14 at 23:25
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    Now I agree with ignored being better. I was hung up on how ignore can be "stubbornly not listening to" ("Mom! He's ignoring me!") when OP's phrase has a reluctant form (some examples pepper search results for "had to turn his back on"). But ignore is much broader than that: When my computer has issues, I typically press ignore to postpone or suppress. And betray more commonly connotes malice, except maybe in "betray one's emotions." Alas, I usually choose the wrong one on trick questions like this; closer always made more sense to me with numbers than words. – user39720 Apr 29 '14 at 5:05

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