Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth: Jostling aggressively with 'selfie' and 'twerk', we have 'push back'

It's now in vogue, is popular with academics and denizens of the Westminster bubble — and sometimes has no meaning 

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Something funny happened when my husband yawned. I yawned. That wasn’t the funny thing. The funny thing was that I recognised the chain reaction from somewhere else. It was from Start the Week on Radio 4, where somebody spoke of pushing back. Before the programme was over, everyone seemed to say push back.

They applied push back not to a chair, or even the date of an event (or, as the politicians would say, the rollout of some piece of meddling). No, theirs was a metaphorical usage, of sometimes no precise meaning. It is popular with academics and denizens of the Westminster bubble. I heard a high-flyer from the Department of Energy use it a couple of days later. It is so much in vogue as to be a late bidder as word of the year, overtaking selfie and twerk.


Push back, for all its voguishness, dates from the 1970s, being cited in the works of Robert Bolton PhD, as he is called on the jacket of People Skills (1979). In this book the doctor discusses defensiveness, which he counts as a ‘block’ on decisions and actions: ‘We have a special phrase that we use to describe an assertion and the predictable defensive response to it. We call it the “push-push back phenomenon”. Virtually every assertion message is experienced as a “push”. Even when the assertion is only attempting to remove the other person from the asserter’s territory, the confrontation is experienced as a “push”. In response to that push there is an almost inevitable “push back”.’

Without wishing to seem defensive, I’m not sure that the punctuation in ‘push-push back’ is helpful. It’s not a like a puff-puff or a wee-wee, but part of a pair: push and push-back, or push/push-back.

Anyway, this originally American term covers ‘resistance, disagreement; adverse reaction, negative feedback’, with the corresponding verbal forms. Despite Dr Bolton’s wise words, reports of negotiations and business demands still describe the go-getting party as pushing for his position. Though seen as advantageous in rugby, to people with an upbringing anything like mine, pushiness — physical, verbal or emotional — is unattractive. In eliciting a shared response it is less effective than yawning.

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