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It's from a lecture.

Professor: So I wanted to discuss a few other terms here ... actually, some, uh, some ideas about how we manage our resources. Let’s talk about what that …what that means. If we take a resource like water. ..well, maybe we should get a little bit more specific here-back up from the more general case-and talk about underground water in particular. So hydrogeologists have tried to figure out... how much water can you take out from underground sources? This has been an important question.Let me ask you guys: how much water, based on what you know so far, could you take out of, say, an aquifer... under the city?

I don't understand the phrase "back up" in "maybe we should get a little bit more specific here-back up from the more general case-and talk about underground water in particular.", does it mean the Professor wants to use something more general to support his point of view?

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    It's like to back up a car - he is changing his mind about what he wants to talk about, which is a bit like backing up a car after taking a wrong turn. – user339660 Mar 29 at 7:57
  • Sounds like Prof realized he'd generalized a little too quickly and literally had to back up his lecture to get a few forgotten, but important facts into play. Only then could he continue properly. – Wayfaring Stranger Mar 30 at 1:54
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From Merriam-Webster's definition of back:

1 : to move backward
// backed into a parking space
—often used with up
// back up to give him some space
// Let's back up a little to clarify what we're saying.

It's the final example sentence that is most relevant to your passage.

To paraphrase and provide alternatives:

Let's move backwards from the more general case.
Let's back away from the more general case.

→ Let's back up from the more general case.

It's being used figuratively, not literally.


You asked, "Does it mean the Professor wants to use something more general to support his point of view?"

No, it's the opposite.

Restating the actual sentence, but adding my own emphasis:

If we take a resource like water . . . well, maybe we should get a little bit more specific here—back up from the more general case—and talk about underground water in particular.

So, the professor wants to use something less general and more particular. In other words, rather than talking about water as a whole, they want to talk about underground water specifically.

  • Although it is not an obvious error to use to back up in the way in which it is used in this lecture, and which is explained in this answer, it is more natural to use it for a movement in the opposite direction: away from a detail that one has prematurely concentrated on, to considering its context. Think of a camera backing up from a close-up to reveal its surroundings: one would never characterise a camera's movement in the opposite direction as backing up. It may be that this has contributed to the OP's puzzlement. – jsw29 Mar 30 at 4:00
  • Jason Bassford, thank you for your precise answer. – James Mar 30 at 7:04
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In this paragraph the word Back-up means moving from a wide generalized concept to a small and focused concept to talk about.
In the previous line he talks about water which is the more general concept and then he asks to focus on a more definite idea 'Underground Water'.

  • so is Back up a phrasal verb? I haven't found the meaning you mentioned in the dictionary, would mind explaining it more, thanks. – James Mar 29 at 10:23
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    “back up” doesn’t mean that- the sentence means that. – Jim Mar 29 at 17:01

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