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I am writing a short story, but I am mostly stuck in one word substitution (as my vocabulary isn't that strong). So I want to know one word for the following phrase —

the act of taking your head back on seeing something strange (or unexpected)

Sample sentence —

She turned away and was a little shocked ... (the act of taking your head back on seeing something strange (or unexpected)) ... by the sight of the filled porcelain.

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    Do you mean like a double-take (which is a delayed reaction to the strangeness) or an immediate reaction? Also since you've tagged this as a single word request, you should include a sample sentence demonstrating how the word would be used. Jul 17, 2021 at 11:06
  • Does this answer your question? Word for Negatively Surprising Jul 18, 2021 at 4:10

10 Answers 10

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This is not a single word, but it works for your purposes: taken aback

This can be used in the figurative sense (and usually is), meaning:

(MW.com)

to make a strong impression on (someone) with something unexpected

It's origin is a nautical term:

(Etymonline)

Now surviving mainly in taken aback, which originally was a nautical expression in reference to a vessel's square sails when a sudden change of wind flattens them back against the masts and stops the forward motion (1754).

Literally, it means being pushed backward (as the head in your example) or halted in your tracks.

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    The problem with this phrase is that, despite its appearance (and etymology), it doesn't actually denote any physical movement. "Shy", "shrink", "recoil", "start" (as in the other answers) all do. Jul 18, 2021 at 6:18
  • Possibly... it doesn't carry much sense of 'shock'...
    – Dan
    Jul 18, 2021 at 10:40
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    Well, the Webster definition for the phrase includes shock. Macmillan lists shock before surprise. Cambridge, Oxford Languages, Collins, Longman all include shock. Dictionary.com includes disconcert. Jul 19, 2021 at 8:54
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    @GArthurBrown: I wasn't trying to turn it into a popularity contest. Just saying that I'm clearly not alone in thinking of "taken aback" (without "physically" being specified) as primarily mental/emotional, just as you and Rich are not alone in taking it as primarily physical. Hence I don't agree that I'm "completely wrong", as Rich put it. Jul 21, 2021 at 8:04
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Start, perhaps - To (cause to) make a sudden movement, and related senses.(OED)

To make a sudden movement, esp. of part of one's body, as to avoid a blow or perceived threat; to flinch or recoil from something in alarm or repugnance. Chiefly with from or with adverbs (as aback, aside, away, back, etc.). Also with the part of the body as subject. (OED)

To undergo a sudden involuntary movement of the body, resulting from surprise, fright, sudden pain, etc.; (sometimes without implication of actual movement) to feel startled or momentarily perturbed, as at a sudden realization. (OED)

So,... "She turned away and started at the sight of the filled porcelain."

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    I think just recoil would work fine. Jul 17, 2021 at 22:02
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    @JohnGordon - yes possibly. It depends how much physical movement the OP wants to convey. To my mind, 'recoiling' generally involves a bigger physical movement than 'starting', which suggests a more limited physical movement and as much mental as physical shock.
    – Dan
    Jul 18, 2021 at 0:09
  • "Start" doesn't specifically suggest movement away from the surprising thing, which is what I think the question means by "taking your head back". But as you say, it's less of a movement than "recoil", so it's good for OP to have options so they can pick out their desired shade of meaning. Jul 18, 2021 at 6:44
  • It's worth nothing that this usage of start is not idiomatic in spoken English and may even seem a little archaic in literary contexts.
    – bjb568
    Jul 18, 2021 at 21:32
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From the full (subscription only) Oxford English Dictionary...

shy intransitive
1: to take a sudden fright or aversion;
to make a difficulty, ‘boggle’ about doing something;
to recoil.

2: (Of a horse) To shrink or start back or aside through sudden fear.

When to shy is used with a person as the subject, it's usually in more metaphoric negating contexts (He never shies away from hard work). But synonyms such as recoil, shrink - and passive be repulsed / repelled [by] - can all be used to convey rapidly jerk back from [something strange / disgusting / scary], if you don't want to potentially liken your subject to a skittish horse.

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    To be taken aback is the usual idiom; it doesn't have to be a physical movement. Jul 17, 2021 at 19:07
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I'd also say recoil or flinch:

recoil: to make a sudden movement away from something esp. because of fear or disgust

flinch: to withdraw or shrink from or as if from pain

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    Good one. 'visually recoiled' or 'physically recoiled' can help make it clear that it's an actual physical reaction.
    – JimmyJames
    Jul 19, 2021 at 20:44
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I think Killing Time's comment fits well, too:

She turned away and did a double take at the sight of the filled porcelain.

A "double take" involves a bit of a delayed reaction, which I envision as having a physical component. Imagine the situation Merriam-Webster gives as an example:

His parents did a double take when he came home with a tattoo.

I imagine that they say "hi" as always and are already turning back to whatever they were doing before he entered, only to turn their heads back, startled, because by then the realization had surfaced that he has this new image on his skin that wasn't there before.

The movement may well involve moving the head backwards as when you try to assess something skeptically, frowning, symbolically increasing the distance to the subject of scrutiny, thinking "wait a minute". You can surely do a double take that way and still look away, if you want to avoid eye contact or don't want to stare; in that case you would freeze for a second, perhaps mentally "replaying" what you saw and considering a proper reaction, without taking a closer look right away.

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  • Double take isn't a good word for the situation since it implies more taking a second look to verify you saw what you thought you saw, rather than being taken aback and rocked back by the first look. The possible movement back to take that second look in a double take is incidental and doesn't imply the same kind of shock the asker seems to be looking for.
    – Andrew
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:45
  • @Andrew Maybe. M-W simply says "a delayed reaction to a surprising or significant situation" which would fit nicely though. Not sure the expression means specifically "taking" another, double look. For example, one can conceivably do a double take upon hearing something. Jul 19, 2021 at 15:18
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Perhaps the word you are looking for is startle. It hints at physical movement, but not explicitly.

startle

verb: cause (a person or animal) to feel sudden shock or alarm.

"a sudden sound in the doorway startled her"

startled

adjective: feeling or showing sudden shock or alarm.

verb: startle; 3rd person present: startles; past tense: startled; past participle: startled; gerund or present participle: startling

She turned away and was startled by the sight of the filled porcelain.

I would not write "She turned away and was startled by the sight of the filled porcelain." It sounds out of order. I would say "She was startled by the sight of the filled porcelain and turned away." Edit: Disregard my suggestion about order. It's irrelevant without context. My mistake.

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  • Possibly a bit emphatic, but nice!
    – Dan
    Jul 19, 2021 at 8:28
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It depends on what you mean by "taking your head back"; back can mean either "backwards, away from" or "returning to".

If you mean the first, a backwards movement away from the surprising thing, then the suggestions from other answers—"to shy", "to shrink", "to recoil", "to start"—all fit.

But if you mean the second, a movement where you return your attention to the surprising thing, then the phrase is "double take", and the action is "to do a double take". There is (as far as I know) no single word for this.

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Another word used for sudden physical movements is jerk:

to make a short sudden movement, or to cause someone or something to do this:

  • "What's wrong?" she asked, jerking her head up. (Cambridge)

So you could say jerked back

To physically jerk or bounce off, especially in a backward motion. To move back or away from, especially because of fear or disgust (WordHippo)

  • "What about morals?" I jerked back, like she'd slapped me. (Newyorker)
  • Suddenly, he jerked back in his chair. (Longman)

The expression jerking one's head back is also possible.

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Depending on how strongly your character reacts, I'd suggest reeled:

Reel: to waver or fall back (as from a blow)

Your sentence could then be:

She turned away and reeled at the sight of the filled porcelain.

This implies quite a dramatic reaction, though, not just a slight movement of surprise.

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Goggled at.

If the intended emotion is that of confusion rather than fright or shock, "goggled at" works. It refers to the sort of confused head-bobble where you look at something, jerk your head back, then move it closer to look at it.

"She turned away and goggled at the filled porcelain."

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