Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Episode 212: Stab in the Back


Shauna and Dan explore the treachery of being stabbed in the back. Bonus: Ancient Greeks, World War II, and the most hated household cleaning jobs. 

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 212: Stab in the Back
Record Date: October 28, 2023
Air Date: November 1, 2023


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

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

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 suffered the despair of having someone you trust betray you? Perhaps it was in kindergarten when you didn’t get picked by your best friend to be on their red rover team. Or in high school when your friend at work got that promotion at the Krogers instead of you. In either case, you may feel like the person has stabbed you in the back.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, stab in the back means:

Noun: a treacherous deed
Verb: to harm or damage in a treacherous manner
End Quote Noun Verb

According to most internet sites, this phrase originated in 1922. But the internet writ large is wrong. So Shauna, any thoughts on when this one would have started?

I want to open us up with a work from 1779. This book explores art and compositions and gives the interpretation of them. The book is called Iconology and it is a collection of emblematical figures that display the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice. The compositions are by Cesare Ripa and the architect of the book was George Richardson.

What is interesting about this is it perfectly captures our phrase and provides the “how” with why we would eventually use the phrase idiomatically. This is from the work called, Treachery.

Our breach of faith, is personified by the figure of an old ugly man, with a piece of dark coloured drapery round his body, in the attitude of caressing an innocent youth; but at the same time that he is giving him a salute, appears preparing to give him a stab in the back with a dagger which he holds in his hand. This infamous character is a disgrace to humanity, he is therefore represented ugly, with a piece of dark coloured drapery round his body, to denote the infamy of those who betray their trust. The violation of faith, and the deceitfulness of this abominable vice, is powerfully exhibited by the treacherous attitude of caressing an innocent youth, and at the same time preparing to stab him; and expresses that a traitor is capable of putting on the appearance of friendship and benevolence, when his only aim is to defame and destroy; and points out that the disposition of a treacherous mind is cruel, persidious, malevolent, wicked, and unjust.
End Quote

So this work doesn’t actually use our phrase in a figurative way, but it explores the broader meaning behind the artwork, which is meant to show treachery but captures “stabbed in the back” quite well.

And within a short amount of time, just 20ish years, I was able to find examples of this phrase being used literally in letters, books, and even political speeches.

This first one is from a response in a United States newspaper to a letter from Lord Hawkesbury at Downing Street, London to Rufus King, Esq. The letter is dated May 19, 1803.

A copy of this letter was printed in the Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer in August 1803, with this excerpt from a much longer response:

While in the very first quarter of the new peace, they were making preparations for a treacherous stroke and getting the harbours of the empire founded. While one hand was clutched in the friendly embrace of England, was the torah stealing a dagger behind to stab her in the back.
End Quote

I’ll move forward a bit to the mid 1800s. This is a Recent Events in the East, being a reprint of Mr. Urguhart’s Contributions to the Morning Advertiser, During the Autumn of 1853. This is by David Urquhart.

…the result, unless you… the conductor of a popular English journal, and Lord Clanricarde, the member of a degraded British Legislature, interpose by a few words of man’s reason to prevent it, will be the imposition upon one of the five confederates… of a condition which extinguishes his sovereignty! The close of the passage at arms with Russia will be a stab in the back at Turkey.
End Quote

Sunlight and the Shadow in The Christian Life by William John Knox-Little.

This is in a sermon called Judas the Traitor. In the Christian stories, Judas betrayed Jesus, leading to Jesus’ death.

It has been said by one who had suffered from an attempted assassination, that he did not feel so sharply the stroke of the sword as the poignant anguish caused by the fact that the blow was struck by one whose love he depended upon, and whom he had befriended. To betray a friend is to stab in the back. Such was Judas.
End Quote

As with our first description some 100 years earlier, we see stab in the back being used to describe treachery and a breaking of trust.

Just a few years later we see it again from a speech delivered by the House of Assembly in the Fifth Session of the Eight Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope, 16 June to 9 September, 1893. The Cape of Good Hope Colony in South Africa was a British colony at this point. This excerpt is a third person account of words by a Mr. O’Reilly on 10 July, 1893, speaking about something called The Logan Contract.  

This one is important because the phrase appears in the debates between politicians, a class of society that traditionally were well spoken. This indicates wide-spread usage of the phrase.

If he were in the Cabinet, he should have waited for the presence of his colleague, but they worked out the lever to get the last Commissioner out of the Ministry with such forces that they not only forced him about but forced themselves out also, and now they were on the same side of the house as he (Mr. O’Reilly) occupied. (Laughter.) They should have stuck to their colleague, and not given him a stab in the back.
End Quote

This next one is the one I mentioned at the top of the show and is sometimes cited as the origin of the phrase. But alas, we have well over 100 years of examples to show that to be incorrect. But still, here is the example from James Joyce’s 1922 work, Ulysses.

However, reverting to friend Sinbad and his horrifying adventures… there was nothing intrinsically incompatible about it, he conceded. On the contrary that stab in the back touch was quite in keeping with those italianos…
End Quote

To understand the characters disdain for Italians, we must understand that this was during the time when the two allies of world war 1 were growing apart due to Mussolini’s ambitions of growth for Italy running directly counter to Britain’s desire to maintain the status quo in the region. It further broke down with Great Britain issuing sanctions against Italy in the mid 1930s and eventually Italy joining world war II on the side of Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until after WW2 that the two Countries began to repair relations.

And one more thing I need to mention about this phrase and its relation to Nazi Germany. I’ll read from a piece on about the Stab-in-the-back myth.

In 1919, a parliamentary committee of inquiry interrogated the commander-in-chief of the German army, General Paul von Hindenburg, on the reasons why Germany had lost the First World War. According to Von Hindenburg, Germany had lost because the new German government had not supported him and had started peace negotiations. Moreover, the German army had been weakened by the revolutionary atmosphere in the army and in at home. He quoted an English general, who had allegedly said: ‘The German army has been stabbed in the back.’

Hindenburg’s quotation refers to the Stab-in-the-back myth. According to this conspiracy theory, the German army had not been defeated on the battlefield, but because social democratic politicians had signed the truce in order to take control. In reality, the army command had made mistakes and the German army was in no shape to keep on fighting. But generals like Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff spread the story to avoid having to admit the mistakes they had made.

Right-wing extremist, nationalist, and antisemitic groups believed that this ‘stab in the back’ was the work of an international Jewish conspiracy.

Even during the war, fabrications were circulating about the supposed lack of patriotism among the German Jews. For that reason, the German government introduced a ‘Judenz├Ąhlung' (count of Jews) in the army in
                You dun zay luhng
1916. It proved that the number of Jews fighting at the front was proportionate. The results of the investigation were not made public, though.

Slanderous propaganda such as the Stab-in-the-back myth contributed to antisemitism and hatred of the social democratic government. In 1921, members of a Freikorps murdered politician Matthias Erzberger, who had signed the armistice in 1918. Several Jewish and social democratic politicians were to fall victim to right-wing extremist assassinations in the years that followed.
End Quote

History buffs will want to check out the behind the scenes to learn more about the Dolchsto├člegenden - the German word meaning any denialist
        Dolk stos legen den
myth misattributing failure to internal betrayal and literally translates to stab legends - every Friday on our Patreon, But as far as the stab-in-the-back terminology goes, it continued to spread from that usage.

Here’s one last example from during WW2, this one being applied to Japan and Russia’s relationship. It is out of the St. Croix Avis, US Virgin Islands dated 2 July 1942. And just as a note, it was November of 1943 before the Soviet Union agreed to join the war against Japan, but only once Germany was defeated, but that defeat didn’t happen until May of 1945. But here is the 1942 story:

Japan Preparing to Attack Siberia

Observers now believe Japan is preparing another stab-in-the-back for Russia, by attacking Siberia. Chinese military leaders have always warned of the possibility of such an attack. It has now been pointed out that Japanese veterans of the Philippine campaign were being regrouped and trained, and that large forces of Japanese are now concentrated in Manchukuo.
End Quote

Woof. So some heavy history on this phrase. It likely started in the late 1700s, and we have a great explanation of how the concept was viewed at the time. But in the 1900s, it took on a dark tone. But as we will see after the break, the phrase has cast most of those shackles and has again become a popular idiom in the English speaking world. But first, we want to say thank you to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

There are two quite famous back-stabberers in European historical stories. A back-stabber is the person who does the stabbing in the back. The first has already been mentioned, Judas Iscariot. But the second is Marcus Junius Brutus as depicted in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. It appears in Act 3 Scene 1 of that play when Caesar recognizes his friend and confidant Brutus as one of his assassins and utters the phrase “Et tu, Brute!” meaning “and you, Brutus”.

Not that Brutus didn’t have good reason and all, fighting against a tyrant. But he did betray Caesar’s trust.

So with that, let’s look at how the words and concepts are used today.

1972 Song
Back Stabbers is a soul song by the O’Jays that was released in 1972 off the album of the same name. It’s a song warning about men who will smile to your face but plan to steal your girl.

1986 Song
Stab in the Back is a 1986 metal song by Angelic Upstarts off the album Power of the Press.  It’s a song warning about men who will smile to your face but will take actions to harm you.

2001 Game
Munchkin is a card-based tabletop game by Steven Jackson. It is a real game that parodies role playing games. And it has a feature called. “Backstab”. It’s where you can roll to try to steal something from another player and thus, stab your teammate in the back. Here is the description of the game from their official website.

Go down in the dungeon. Kill everything you meet. Backstab your friends and steal their stuff. Grab the treasure and run.

Admit it. You love it.

Munchkin is the mega-hit card game about dungeon adventure . . . with none of that stupid roleplaying stuff. You and your friends compete to kill monsters and grab magic items. Don the Horny Helmet and the Boots of Butt-Kicking. Wield the Staff of Napalm . . . or maybe the Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment. Start by slaughtering the Potted Plant and the Drooling Slime, and work your way up to the Plutonium Dragon!

Start with the Munchkin Deluxe Edition. When you want more variety, there are lots of supplements you can add . . . more silly monsters to kill, more great treasures to find!
End Quote

2002 Book
A Stab in the Back is a sci-fi novel by Phillip C Beebe. Here’s the synopsis on Amazon.

When you think of all the strange things that have happened in your life, you tend to say 'It just can't get any stranger than that.' That's what the people of Earth thought. It was always suspected there was other life out there and it had been suspected that the Earth had been visited in the past. It had! And by a race of people now coming to seek our help. Who would think that an advanced race would need the help of a civilization several hundred years, if not thousands of years younger… Yet, the Andromedians had sent their ambassador to enlist the help of Earth in fighting off the chains of oppression from a domineering race known as the Laxtor's. Their arrival is a gold mine of opportunity for the people of earth. Advances in medicine are freely given along with the designs for a better aircraft, that fly not only in the atmosphere, but are capable of achieving orbit without burning the usual mix of chemicals. At least that's what they say…
End Quote

All that sounds too good to be true and I suspect the title hints at how it definitely is too good to be true.

2010 Song
Kesha released an upbeat pop song in 2010 called Backstabber off the album Animal. It features a lyrical chain that goes:

Lookie here, we all found out
That you have got a set of loose lips
Twisting stories, all because you're jealous
Now I know exactly what you're all about
This is what you're all about

Girl, you're such a backstabber
End Quote

2019 Song
Stabbed in the Back is a 2019 song by Tink off the album Voicemails. The chorus goes:

Stabbed in the back, I ain't even tryna cap right now
There's some people that I love that I no longer trust
I've been up and I've been down
Can't let the fake come around
There's some people that I love that I no longer trust
End Quote

2022 Movie
Stabbed in the Back is a 2022 documentary looking at what happened to the 500,000 Jewish soldiers who served in the Central Powers’ armies during World War I. It is about 45 minutes long and is available for free on Tubi TV. The title is a play on the stab-in-the-back myth we discussed just before the break.

And one last thing, I took a stroll on the Bunny Trails Facebook page to see if the broader world of Facebook had any good examples of this phrase.

It turns out there are a plethora of private and public groups dedicated to people who feel like they have been stabbed in the back by family. And I noticed not a single one of those groups were able to spell every word correctly in the group’s name. Which I’m not sure is an indictment on the group’s concept or on Facebook’s search algorithm.

Wrap Up
But regardless of social media’s potential failings, this phrase still has a place in society. Anytime you feel like a friend has betrayed you, this phrase can apply. Sometimes the friend didn’t really betray you, like when John Smith got the promotion at Kroger and not you, but you still feel like it because the person got something you wanted. But that feeling is actually jealousy, not betrayal. And no treachery was involved. Still, feelings are difficult to understand and can span many forms in a short period of time. So stab in the back seems like an apt phrase for us to continue to use in the future and I suspect it will be around for a long time.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, what is the household chore you most hate doing.

We had many examples, like dishes and laundry, sweeping/mopping, vacuuming, and even cleaning the gutters. But for the first time ever we have complete agreement among our Patrons. With 100 percent of the votes, no one likes cleaning the bathroom and toilet.

My least favorite used to be cleaning the gutters, mostly because I dislike heights and being up on the ladder is disconcerting to me. But in 2015 I got gutter covers and now it’s not really an issue for me so that is why I picked the same as everyone else. Because I hate cleaning the toilets.

Cleaning toilets is also the one I like the least… because it’s gross. Maybe if it’s just my toilet… no, actually, that sounds gross too. However, that is the chore I do the most because I’m OCD, so yeah.

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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