Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aback

It’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is aback!

A contraction of Old English on bæc, meaning “backward, behind, at or on the back”, this word can be divided into two: a- and –back.

As is clear from its origins, a-, in this context a prefix, originated as a separate preposition: on. This is quite a common change, from Old English on to a, actually. Other words that share this origin are, for example, aloud, along and abroad. In this form, it is a word inherited from Germanic.

However, it might be easily confused with some words with Latin origin, such as accursed or afford. This a-, however, is a shortened version of Latin ad, meaning “to, toward”. In some other words, like abound, it might be easy to think that it should be divided as a- + bound, but it is actually from Latin ab- + undare.

Clearly, one needs to be slightly careful when determining where the a- in a specific construction comes from.

When it comes to back, it comes from Proto-Germanic *bako-(m), which has no known connections outside of the Germanic languages. It might come from a word related to spine or shoulder 1 though.

The word aback, in its current form, appears around the early 13th century, then meaning “toward the rear”. Nowadays, it mainly survives in the construction taken aback. This construction originally referred to something very specific: when a sea-going vessel’s square sails are flattened against the masts and stops the forward motion of the vessel due to a sudden change in wind.

Today, it is mostly used in its figurative sense: “suddenly or unexpectedly checked or disappointed”. This is a relatively late innovation and showed up for the first time around 1792.

And there you have it – the story of aback!

Join me again next week, as we take a closer look at abacus! See you then!

  1. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary; the OED does not mention this possible connection.

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