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A The Independent of London article, The rise and rise of Sudoku, reads:

[...] sales of pencils in Britain are reported to have risen 700 per cent on the back of the Sudoku boom.

Question: Does the phrase "on the back of" imply correlation or causation in British English?

  • Incidentally, this phrase has substantially the same meaning in both American English and British English and is used not infrequently in both dialects of English. – ohwilleke Jan 31 '17 at 5:13
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It means that "Sudoku fever" has increased the sales of pencils significantly.

on the back of

  • "by using the efforts of" (other people) - MW
  • "soon after an earlier success, and as a result of it" - CD
  • "as a result of; after; subsequent to" YD
  • "because of something, or helped by something" MD

Examples:

  • The company has achieved record profits on the back of cheap labor.
  • The advertising agency secured the contract on the back of its previous successful campaigns.

This is what "on the back of" means here: "by using the previous efforts or success of". As "Sudoku" became a craze, and one needs pencils to play it, the sales of pencils increased tremendously (on the back of Sudoku fever).

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The notion of "on the back of" here is much like the kindred expression "on the coattails of." Both expressions suggest that the thing showing growth, improvement, or other success is doing so on the strength of something else—a boom in a related market, a hugely successful new product, or an exceedingly popular political candidate, for example.

As the metaphorical idea of being "on the back of" something else suggests, the beneficiary is being carried by that other thing, which ties in to yet another similar (but not identical in sense) expression: "getting a free ride."

To answer your specific question, there is a strong sense of causation and not merely of correlation in the expression "on the back of": The thing being carried owes its success or improved position to the carrier.

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Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms - Page 15 John Ayto - 2010

on the back of

following on from (and perhaps as a consequence of).

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