6

The following excerpt is from the story 'Adolf' by DH Lawrence, in which there is the expression 'Back your life it is'. What does it mean? I googled to find a definition and looked up in many dictionaries, but all in vain. Is it an idiomatic expression or a fixed phrase—slang or dialect?

When morning came, and it was light, I went downstairs. Opening the scullery door I heard a slight scuffle. Then I saw dabbles of milk all over the floor and tiny rabbit-droppings in the saucers. And there the miscreant, the tips of his ears showing behind a pair of boots. I peeped at him. He sat bright-eyed and askance, twitching his nose and looking at me while not looking at me.

He was alive — very much alive. But still we were afraid to trespass much on his confidence.

"Father!" My father was arrested at the door. "Father, the rabbit's alive."

"Back your life it is," said my father.

"Mind how you go in."

  • 2
    I am having a hard time googling this phrase or even searching google books because of the general construction “verb back your life” (take back, taking back, win back, give you back and even dream back). My instinct is it means “you bet your life it is”, ie “with great certainty!” or “I knew it!”, etc. It’s probably a regionalism for the characters in Lawrence’s story. Good rustic folk and so on – Dan Bron Oct 24 '18 at 16:35
  • @DanBron, Thank you. I also thought in the same way, but wanted to make sure. I hope someone will come up with more light. – mahmud koya Oct 24 '18 at 16:52
  • 1
    I agree with Dan Bron. I think "Back your life" means the same as "Bet your life". – Michael Harvey Oct 24 '18 at 17:42
  • 1
    I think the publisher may have issues. Please check this out:mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=180226 Lots of problems with punctuation and spelling etc. – Lambie Oct 24 '18 at 22:17
  • 1
    Dan Bron is correct in his assessment. My grandmother's late boyfriend used to use these kinds of terms. As for Lambie's comment about Delphi having issues, while some of those are a matter of carelessness, most of those examples can be cleanly explained by the fact that the English language has changed a lot in the 100 years (almost) since "Adolf" was written or in the post's case, nearly 150 years since The Eternal Husband was written. After all, a hundred years ago was a foreign land. – Sora Tamashii Oct 25 '18 at 4:04
6

I think there is a simple answer to this. There is an idiomatic exclamation in English:

When I want to re-enforce a factual claim, I might say this:

"That rabbit will still be in the scullery tomorrow, you can bet on it." Or I could say, "... you can bet your life on it" and gain a greater impression of certainty.

Another word for 'bet' is 'back'. You can bet on a horse or you can back a horse.

So I think it likely is that the father is saying that he is strongly shares the certainty. If I am right, the verb "back" is imperative. To the parent is telling the child he can be quite sure the rabbit is still alive: so sure that he can back (i.e bet) his life it is.

0

That looks like a typographical error to me. I'm a native American English speaker, not a native British English speaker (as Lawrence was). However, from the context, I infer that it has the same meaning as the idiom "bet your life", and none of the sources I looked at (cambridge dictionary, the free dictionary - links #1 and #2 in my Google results) give "back your life" as an alternative phrase. I also found no evidence of contemporaneous usage, and non-idiomatic interpretations have to be fairly convoluted to make sense of it.

If it is a typo, you're not likely to find out much more about it. Depending on the publishing era and format of your copy, it could have happened in the writing, at the publisher/typesetter/printer, or during OCR and post-OCR spelling correction (the latter two operations might have been used to generate digital versions).

In my own reading, I find spelling errors pretty frequently, even in books that have been in print for a long time.

Edit: I’ve un-deleted this (incorrect) answer for posterity now that several abusive comments have been removed.

  • +1 @mRotten: A typographical error! A good inference, though I can't take it but with a pinch of salt. Most probably, it could be a regional variation of the idiom bet your life as Dan Bron mentioned in his comment above. – mahmud koya Oct 24 '18 at 18:35
  • @mahmudkoya Your best bet is to look at a printed copy. – michael.hor257k Oct 24 '18 at 23:16
  • @michael.hor257k if you can find an edition that predates the typo. – mRotten Oct 24 '18 at 23:31
  • 1
    Well, a 1920 version of the story has the same excerpt, so I don't think this has anything to do with Delphi Classics (as was suggested in the comments on the question), although that doesn't mean that someone didn't make an error before that either. – Laurel Oct 25 '18 at 5:38
  • 1
    @mRotten You can scroll up to the top of the book (usually it's either the title page or the page after) to see when it was published. Some books on Google Books don't show this as part of the free preview ("snippet view"), so I search for the date I think that it was published. You're right not to trust the date that Google gives, since I've seen it be wrong countless times (and usually in etymology answers, when it's super important that the year not be off by 100 :P). – Laurel Oct 25 '18 at 5:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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