On the Back Foot – Meaning, Origin and Synonyms

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

On the back foot means to be in a defensive or less advantageous position compared to your opposition. Picture a boxer backed into a corner—yep, that’s essentially what I’m talking about here.

An idiom, like this one, is a phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the ordinary meanings of its individual words. Idioms give us the ability to express and communicate scenarios in just a few metaphorical words.

But where did this particular idiom come from? What are its synonyms? And most importantly, how can you use it without stumbling? Hang tight because I unravel this phrase from the ground up!

Is It On the Back Foot or On the Backfoot?

On the Back Foot vs On the Backfoot Ngram
On the back foot and on the backfoot usage trend.

The phrase is most commonly written as “on the back foot,” but you may occasionally come across it without the space as “on the backfoot.” But if you want to play it safe, stick to the spaced-out version.

On the Back Foot Meaning Explained

On the Back Foot – Meaning Origin and Synonyms

Being on the back foot basically describes a situation where you’re on the defensive or at a disadvantage of some sort. You can apply to so many different contexts, from sports and business to relationships and politics. In a nutshell, it’s the idiom you’ll use when you’re not holding the upper hand.

It makes me think of being a teenager and dealing with bullies. Sure, I’m a fancy, well-known writer now, but those skills get you nowhere in high school. I was always on the back foot as I walked the halls between classes.

On the Back Foot Origin and Etymology

There’s no actual origin to pin this down with. But most believe it comes from the world of sports and the idea of one player waiting on the back foot while the other made their final move. To hold your ground in different sports, you need good footing. But if you’re stuck on your back foot, you can’t advance or defend yourself very well.

Synonyms for On the Back Foot

Keep your writing spry and your conversations fresh with these alternatives to on the back foot.

  • On the defensive
  • At a disadvantage
  • In a tight spot
  • Under pressure
  • Cornered

On the Back Foot Examples in a Sentence

On the Back Foot – Meaning Origin and Synonyms 1

It’s time to put this idiom to the test. Here are ten sentences that show just how versatile on the back foot can be.

  • After news of the scandal affair broke, the millionaire was clearly on the back foot.
  • They started the match on the back foot but made a surprising comeback!
  • Since the budget cuts, the publishing project has been on the back foot.
  • Amy was on the back foot during the entire interview, struggling to answer the unrelated questions convincingly.
  • The team was on the back foot after losing two of their key players.
  • You’ve put me on the back foot with that question.
  • Their aggressive marketing and take-down campaign has put us on the back foot with our upcoming product.
  • I was on the back foot when my ex showed up at the party and ended up leaving early.
  • The company has been on the back foot since the new regulations took effect.

Best Foot Forward

Now use on the back foot like the pro you are! This idiom will come in handy in almost any situation where one side is clearly unprotected or caught off guard. I just love idioms. Don’t you? Load up on even more idiomatic terms like this one on our site!