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Some years ago the son of another friend asked me why we say “talk about a person behind his back.” Think about it: wouldn’t “behind one’s back” be the front?

Smart kid. :)

The phrase behind someone’s back should not be taken literally. It is figurative language, which means that it is metaphorical. Figurative language is:

used with a meaning that is different from the basic meaning and that expresses an idea in an interesting way by using language that usually describes something else : not literal
For example ▪ The phrase “know your ropes” means literally “to know a lot about ropes,” while its figurative meaning is “to know a lot about how to do something.” ▪ figurative language

So when we refer to an action done behind a person’s back, we are underscoring the sneaky and scheming manner of the action.

The New Oxford American Dictionary provides:

behind someone’s back: without a person’s knowledge and in an unfair or dishonorable way: e.g., Carla made fun of him behind his back.

From Learner’s Dictionary:

behind someone’s back
: without someone’s knowledge : in secret
▪ You shouldn’t gossip about people behind their back(s). ▪ If you have something to say, why not say it to my face instead of whispering it behind my back?! ▪ She went behind his back and spoke directly to his supervisor.

Photo credit: Simply B Well

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