Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Episode 199: Back Track


This week Shauna and Dan try to go forward in a straight line while discussing the origins of the term, back track. Spoiler, they bunny trail anyway. Bonus: Dan gets angry with a guy from 1829, Shauna talks early FPS games for the Game Boy Advance, and our Patrons show some to San Diego.

 Click to read the show notes

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 199: Back Track
Record Date: June 25, 2023
Air Date: July 12, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever worked really hard on a project and gotten all the way to the last step only to realize you missed something along the way? Or perhaps you’ve been on a trip and you’re just driving along for a while and suddenly realize that you aren’t sure where you actually are? Now, you have no choice but to backtrack until you figure out the right course.


Backtrack is used today to mean a couple of things but the general idea is that someone is traveling backwards either literally or figuratively. And sometimes both.

It can refer to a person trying to correct a verbal statement - perhaps trying to cover a lie or create a new one - when a situation didn’t go well for them. Or it might refer to a person who gave their word and now they are trying to get out of it.

For example,
“Dad promised to take me to the game… but now he’s saying he might have to work. I know he’s going to backtrack and claim he only promised to try to be there.”

And yes, I know that example is extra sad… however, this usage is often for situations that are… well, devastating either to the backtracker or to the one recognizing the backtrack.

Thankfully, this isn’t the most common usage which instead refers to having to either repeat tasks or actually going backwards through the steps of a process. While it can be rather frustrating, this usage is far less crushing.

We’ll have plenty of examples but first, let’s do some word history.

The origin of this phrase is fairly well established, which is cool. It does mean we have to get extra nerdy on this part. If you are amongst those interested in etymology, this next minute or two is for you!

The word Backtrack was formed within the English language by way of conversion from the two-word term Back Track. This two-word term was formed within English by compounding. So it is a compound term made up of the words back and track.

Oxford English Dictionary breaks up the two-word term Back Track and the one-word term Backtrack into separate entries. However, the one-word term refers to the two-word term as its etymological precursor.

Let’s go through those steps, all of this from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Beginning in the late 1400s, the word Back was used to mean,

Situated behind or in the rear, or away from the front.
End Quote

Track has been in use since at least the 1600s with the meaning,

A way made or beaten by the feet of people or animals; a path; a rough unmade road.
End Quote

These two words were used together as the two-word compound Back Track which started being seen in print by the early 1700s.

A track lying or leading towards the rear; esp. in to take the back track, to return or retreat; also figurative.
End quote

And finally the one-word term Backtrack means,

To return; to retrace one's steps. Also figurative, to go back on, withdraw.
End quote

Oxford English Dictionary has examples dating back to the early 1900s for this single-word version. But the figurative meaning was in use prior to this as the two-word version.

Okay, we’ve established dates and the origin of our expression. From here on we will just do one timeline of these terms found in print.

The phrase appears in the 1781 work Biographica Scoticana: Or a Brief Historical Account of the Lives, Characters, and Memorable Transactions of the Most Eminent Scots Worthies, Noblemen, Gentlemen, Ministers, and Others by John Howie.

And a little farther, when speaking of his mortification to the world, and other sweet experiences, he fays, " And although, O "Lord, thou shouldst find me in the back track and tenor of my life, to seek my foul's comfort and encourage"ment from them, yet I have no cause to complain of "hard dealing from thy hand, seeing it is thy ordinary "way with some of thy people,
End quote

In this case, “back track and tenor” refers to the general course or trajectory of the speaker's life. The speaker acknowledges there are times when they have deviated from the expected or desired path and they’re basically accepting the responsibility for their own hardships. So the back track in this case is essentially an alternate route… not the way they were intended to go.

Here is a story from the Litchfield enquirer, February 05, 1829, from Litchfield, Connecticut. A gentleman was running a quick errand across the river when he heard some animal jump into the water. Thinking it a racoon,
…he pursued it with his canoe, and commenced an attack upon it with his paddle, until he broke it in pieces; but he might as well have struck upon a sea-monster; for to his astonishment it was discovered to be a wild cat of uncommon size. measuring four feet in length, and about a foot across the breast.

He soon got possession of the canoe, when he commenced springing perpendicularly several feet, with his eyes darting fury, snapping and grinning in a most terrible manner. In this dilemma, Mr. A. resigned his commission to his more powerful competitor by leaping into the water; with a powerful effort. caused the boat to recede some feet, by which means,the cat fell short of his intended grasp in attempting to seize upon his supposed victim.

Mr. A. finding himself pursued, redoubled his exertions for shore, the infuriated animal in close pursuits. At this awful crisis, he called in a stentorian voice for the dogs, which, although on a back track of the animal, were fortunately in hearing in time to rescue him from his impending fate…
End quote

The Constitutional Whig August 24, 1830 edition out of Richmond, Virginia contains the phrase in a short excerpt.

These Pennsylvania meetings are alarming - Pennsylvania was the State which began the Jackson dance---without which, Jacksonism could never have been formidable, and would soon expire in convulsions Gold to silver, Gen. Veto takes the back track on the first Monday in December.
End quote

The January 2, 1845 issue of American Railroad Journal and Advertiser, also listed as Railway Locomotives and Cars, featured information about a new Back Track system.

The empty cars are then run a short distance to a point near the end and base of the same mountain, whereby an inclined plane and stationary engine power they are elevated at once in trains to the summit of the mountain, from whence by the new Back Track they commence their return by gravity to the mines, wending their way along the side of the Mountain until they reach a point opposite the mines, where they are again elevated by means of a plane and stationary engine to the summit, to be reloaded with coal and sent down the descending road. By this novel arrangement, locomotive power is entirely dispensed with ; and the only power required for doing almost any amount of business, is that of the two stationary engines at the points mentioned, for elevating the empty cares; all the rest is accomplished by gravity, which is the cheapest of all powers yet discovered.
End quote

While this is still a use on the literal side of things, naming this Back Track Is an indication that the term was common enough to give people a clue as to the purpose of the system.

The work History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, and Forest, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Selections was published in 1890 by contributor J.H. Beers & Co. It was compiled by Michael A. Leeson.

I had gone perhaps two miles up the large stream. The night was almost as light as day and very calm. I could hear the echo of the ring of my steel skates on the shore as I passed swiftly along. Coming to the mouth of a smaller stream on my right, I concluded to explore it a short distance. It was very crooked. In going up it some three quarters of a mile, I think, I must have traveled fully two miles. Its average width was about sixty feet. Both banks of the stream were heavily timbered, principally with hemlock, and the branches interlocked, forming a complete canopy over my head, making it quite dark in comparison with the broad creek I had just left. How long I might have enjoyed the delight of the exercise and the beautiful scenery of this little stream I can not tell. I was unpleasantly interrupted by a strange sound which I supposed at first was the hooting of an owl. As I listened the conclusion came to me that the noises came from wolves, and boded me no good. Keeping my presence of mind, I started on the back track for the mouth of the creek.
End quote

In 1903, the term was included in Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years ; with Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, Etc by John Stephen Farmer.

To retreat; TO BACK OUT
End quote

A June 1906 article in Hunter-trader-trapper uses two meanings of backtrack within the same story about a deer that a person had been pursuing all day.  

Many were the dodges this wily old chap tried in order to lose himself, a favorite one being to backtrack himself for a short distance then make a tremenduous leap sidewise into a clump of bushes or a large patch of grass, but after about three hours of this cross tag, evidences of fatigue began to show in his signs and I caught an occasional glimpse of his fine figure as he would take a fresh start, always now from his nest. He would make a run and gain on me and walk a short distance, and then lie down with his eyes on the back track. Resting as long as he dared, he would leap about ten feet direct from his nest.
End quote

The Hayti herald., August 26, 1920 from Hayti, Missouri contains an ad for I. Kohn - The Quality Store.
Back-track the Well-shod Child
End quote 

In the world of computer and math language… the term "backtrack" was coined by American mathematician D. H. Lehmer in the 1950s.

Backtracking is an algorithmic approach used to find solutions for certain problems. It works by incrementally constructing potential solutions and abandoning them ("backtracking") as soon as it becomes clear they cannot lead to a valid solution.

It is also useful for parsing, the knapsack problem, and other combinatorial optimization problems. It forms the foundation of logic programming languages like Icon, Planner, and Prolog. This is cool for people who know what any of that means…

For the rest of us… people actually use backtracking a lot. It’s employed to solve crossword puzzles and Sudoku by systematically exploring different letter or number combinations, discarding invalid options, and backtracking when necessary to find the correct solution. This is why most people use a pencil to complete these types of puzzles.

And now, let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

The article BackTrack: The debut bang of FPS games on GBA proves it can be done, but has it got the ammo to hold its own? written by NIX was posted on IGN Entertainment in 2001. I went to their profile and NIX has the title - Once and future IGN intern.

The GBA First-Person Shooter genre has exploded. Some are a little pixelly, some are a little framey, but so far, they're all fast and intense, and much more impressive than you ever expected them to be. The opening salvo is Backtrack, and the fast-paced game already proves that the genre is perfectly viable on the little handheld. But with all of these FPSes coming within a few weeks of each other, the real question isn't who's first or who pulls off the most novelty tricks -- they'll all bicker and battle about who can do textured ceilings and floors, which has the fastest framerate, which can do dynamic lighting, who has real transparencies or just dithered graphics, etc. As long as we see performance of at least this level, the bottom line is going to be really simple -- is the game a good game?

So, is Backtrack a good game? It certainly is very playable. The fast-paced gameplay is exactly what you demand from a shooter, and the GBA keeps clip well. Easy controls keep it simple and direct -- Quake'ers and even Doom-mongers may be looking for the controls to duck, jump, or aim up and down, but by keeping it to the basics, the focus is on running and gunning. It's a shooter much more in the vein of Castle Wolfenstein, and in many ways, the basics are all this genre needs. You need bullets, and you need enemies to sink them into.
End quote

While NIX shares that this may be the thing for some people and goes into elaborate detail of all the good and bad about the game, the article ends with the statement
In the hurry to become the answer to the trivia question of which was the GBA's first shooter, they made a trivial game.
End quote

Backtrack Linux was released in 2006
"Backtrack" in the context of Linux does not refer to the backtracking algorithm we discussed earlier.

BackTrack Linux was a distribution of the Linux operating system that focused on security testing and penetration testing. It provided a range of tools and utilities for ethical hacking, network analysis, and vulnerability assessment.

BackTrack Linux has been discontinued and replaced by its successor called Kali Linux.

The song Backtrack by the British artist Rebecca Ferguson was released as a single and as the lead single on the deluxe edition of her debut album Heaven in 2012. The song has elements of soul, jazz, and pop. Here are some of the lyrics,

Am I confused, am I a crazy person
You say it's old news
She doesn't mean nothing
But don't you understand that I am heartbroken
No matter what you do
You just can't make it untrue
You're breathing lies
I want to believe in
When I'm watching you walk out the door
I could fall through the floor

But I can't go along with it
You can say just what you like
But you still did it
You backtrack and change your act
At a hundred likes a minute
But fool as I am I won't go along with it
End quote

I really like her voice and I already added this song to one of my playlists. Her voice is a little higher than a lot of the soul or jazz artists I listen to and in a good way. It's a nice change in the lineup.  

The 2015 movie Backtrack is categorized by IMDB as horror, drama, and fantasy. Here is a short synopsis.

A psychotherapist has nightmares and sinister visions. Ghosts? Is it more than his daughter's death causing this? He returns to his childhood home and dad to put things to rest.
End quote

Yeah, so there is a trailer on IMDB and it definitely gave me the creeps.

There are a couple of apps with Backtrack in the name.

First up is BackTrackIt. This is a music app. Now, music is something we had not touched on in this episode but let’s talk about it real quick. Tracks in music are slightly different than the tracks we’ve been discussing. However, the concept of back track does refer to the song or songs on the back of an album. Additionally, the backing track or back track is used to refer to the back-up vocals or accompaniment - any portion of the recording that is not the primary feature.

This app is designed to help musicians of any skill level improve. Here are some features of the app,

Tempo Control
Slow down or speed up any song. Learn fast solos easily or practice your setlist at any tempo.
Key Shift
Shift the song’s key to match your vocal pitch or instrument tuning. No more switching guitar tuning between D# and E standard.
Practice any part of the song using the gapless looping feature. This combined with the tempo control is a recipe for great practice.
End Quote

Here is a little bit about another app from the entry Use the compass on Apple Watch by Apple Support,

The Compass app shows you the direction your Apple Watch is pointing, your current location, and the elevation. You can also create Compass Waypoints as you go and retrace your steps with Backtrack… Backtrack in the Compass app can track your route and help you retrace your steps if you get lost.
End quote

One of the directions for using the app reads,

Start walking in the direction that you came from, indicated by the bouncing arrow, following the white line in the Compass app back to where you started.
End quote

I think that’s a great app. If you are planning to hike somewhere unfamiliar… that sounds like a great tool to have available.

Wrap up:
I personally find that I backtrack a lot, mostly while driving. It's not such a bad thing. If you're lost and you don't know the area, go back exactly the way you came. That's just smart. It turns out, even really efficient problem solving algorithms do it that way. Go back to the point where things got weird and try a different approach. It may not be fun feeling like you're repeating effort… I suggest instead we think of it as simply learning. And then finding a better way. Nothing to be ashamed of. Honestly, it's just a part of life.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

You have one free day to explore in San Diego - Zoo or Aquarium?

The Aquarium won with 75% of the votes!

Emily said,

I voted for Aquarium because I’ve been to the Zoo. I’d happily go back, though, as I loved seeing the flora there as much as the fauna.
End quote

Jan added,

I've always heard the zoo was awesome so I figure I'd go there.
End quote

Tough one for me. I went with aquarium because we have a Zoo in town but not an aquarium. But if I had two days in San Diego I'd do both!

MARY said

Yeah. I definitely had to do both when I was there. It was a while back so things might be different today. I love the huge tanks and the amazingly odd sea creatures. It feels like science fiction in real life.
End quote

I went with the Aquarium as well, because there is a really awesome zoo right here in Kansas. But I’d take the second day if offered, no question!

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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