Downing Street let it be known that May’s withdrawal agreement might after all be acceptable, if only the open-ended Irish backstop could be removed. Brussels in return let it be known that Johnson’s new Whitehall sherpa, David Frost, was in town, and that the backstop was the issue under discussion.
The Guardian

This excerpt is awashed in metonymies; Downing Street refers to the appointed executive power in the UK; May is short for Theresa May, the former Prime Minister of the UK; Brussels represents the European Parliament; Johnson refers to the current Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson; Whitehall stands for Parliament, a Sherpa (The Guardian spells it lowercase) is a Himalayan mountain guide; maybe that last one is a metaphor.

But what is an Irish backstop? Is that also a metonymy? A synecdoche? A euphemism? What?

The BBC has an article that explains what it means in a single sentence

The backstop is a position of last resort, to maintain a seamless border on the island of Ireland.

But until Brexit, I had never heard of a backstop being applied to an inland border. Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries) defines it as

1. A thing placed at the rear of something as a barrier or support.
1.3 An emergency precaution or last resort.

Online I found an infographic that uses the term, but it's enclosed in quotes, which suggests that the meaning might be unfamiliar or ambiguous.

enter image description here

Why is the solution by Brussel, which is meant to preserve the free movement of goods and people within Ireland, called a backstop? Since when? Did someone came up with this baffling term? And is the Irish backstop a metonymy, a metaphor, or something else?

  • 2
    I think it means what the graphic says it means: It's an "if all else fails" last resort proposal.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 0:06
  • @Robusto I think you're right, it's a last minute policy or mechanism that falls in place if Britain doesn't organise itself in time. Oh... OK. I've been brushing up on my Brexit drama and I couldn't understand why the word backstop was used everywhere.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 0:11
  • 1
    This may wind up as an elusive angel-count on the head of a figurative pin, since we rhetoric lovers love nothing better than parsing and categorizing figures of speech. Questions like this send me running to MH Abrams, who if not the ultimate authority, certainly has substantial street cred. Following MHA's lead, I'd call backstop a metaphor rather than pursue a metonymic argument. Great question, though!
    – Rob_Ster
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 1:02
  • 1
    Maybe a metaphor. Maybe a metonym. Maybe an elusive angels' split hair-count on the head of a figurative pin. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 1:52
  • 1
    @Cascabel harrowing and senseless times.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


According the the OED, back-stop or backstop is defined as:

a. Something placed at the back to serve as a barrier; spec. a mound of earth or embankment set up behind a target on a rifle range. Also figurative.

1851 F. Starr Twenty Years Trav. Life xiii. 143 The remaining shaft..broke off short, and that which when we started was a gig, was now a back stop for horses' heels.

1904 G. F. Goodchild & C. F. Tweney Technol. & Sci. Dict. 37/1 Back stops (Cotton Spinning), buffers, used to prevent the mule carriage from going beyond a certain point during its inward run.

1946 Sports Afield Jan. 55/1 (D.A.) Put up two targets on the backstop for the second barrel practice.

1947 Landfall 1 43 This being the first issue of Landfall, there is no previous survey to provide a convenient back-stop to discussion.

1954 W. Faulkner Fable (1955) 343 The railroad embankment..would serve as a backstop for what bullets neither flesh nor wood absorbed.

This suggests that the word is used figuratively when there is no physical barrier (this entry not updated since 1973, though). Since then everyday use suggests it is losing it figurative connotation and become a more literal expression of a wide variety of situations.

The OED also reports the derivative use of backstop as a verb:

backstop v. transitive, to support, back up; to supply with necessary additional resources. colloquial (orig. and chiefly U.S.).

1977 N.Y. Times 17 June A26/2 The International Monetary Fund can backstop the private system.

Consider that backstop is a word with a definition. Backstops come in many varieties. In baseball a screen behind the catcher is a backstop; it stops the ball if the catcher fails to catch it. It’s not a metonymy or a metaphor or anything else. This particular backstop is modified by “Irish,” and thus made specific to the Brexit deal.

My neighbor can be my backstop for taking care of my kids in the event that I can’t find a babysitter. That’s not a metaphor; it’s the use of a word with a definition.

As broadcast on CSPAN-2 on September 1, 2019, from the National Archives, author Philip Mudd (Black Site) described the views of one of the terrorists (Kalid Sheikh Muhammad) on the importance of destroying the United States before destroying what he considers corrupt Arab regimes as follows: "The Americans are the backstop to these corrupt regimes."

A last resort is not figurative. Neither is backstop. It seems to me, at least, that it’s literal, however complicated the conditions that trigger it and its actual provisions may be.

See also this Ngram for backstop, which shows that in the last 60 years, the word has been used in economics (especially energy and climate control research), insurance, and finance.

A good swr for a last resort would be backstop.

  • 1
    @Cascabel, I added an NGram link, which shows the use of the word in the fields of finance, insurance, medicine, climate change, and energy. Earlier uses, as well as current ones, relate to stopping bullets, arrows, balls, etc., and preventing trucks from backing up into whatever. It's used as a noun, adjective, and verb.
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 1:45

backstop a noun with the sense: Vocabulary.com

  • a precaution in case of an emergency
    • Type of: guard, precaution, safeguard a precautionary measure warding off impending danger or damage or injury etc.

With backstop as the noun, Irish is the adjective and current events place it in the Brexit scenario. It's a polito-legal device to prevent damage to a party(s) to the dispute

Earliest usage in print I could find:

The Irish Yearbook of International Law Google Books White Paper 2018

... removing customs checks and controls between the UK and EU so the Northern Irish backstop solution would not be triggered.

More on backstop:

In AmE, backstop is frequently used as a verb, figuratively, but that is not the case in the EU situation. I believe we borrowed this sense of the verb from the Aussies.

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