Stabbed in the Back – Uncovering Betrayal

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Stabbed in the back is an idiomatic expression used to infer that a betrayal, deception, or breach of trust has occurred. It is often used with a tone of anger or exasperation.

Idiomatic expressions such as stabbed in the back are used figuratively to support the message an author is trying to portray to their audience. They often come from a literal definition but, through the years, have taken on a connotative use. Learning what they mean and how they are used can help you improve your English language skills. 

This guide will explore the idiom’s meaning, usage, and origin. You’ll also find related terms and phrases, examples, and tips for effective usage. Continue reading to gain a comprehensive understanding of the expression stabbed in the back, and challenge your knowledge with a quick quiz at the end. 

Stabbed in the Back – Uncovering Betrayal 1

What Does the Idiom Stabbed in the Back Mean?

The idiom stabbed in the back means to be betrayed by someone, especially when the betrayal is unexpected and comes from a person one considered a friend or ally. It conveys a sense of deep betrayal and untrustworthiness.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to stab someone in the back means “to do something harmful to someone who trusted you.” Moreover, Collins Dictionary says, “If you say that someone has stabbed you in the back, you mean that they have done something very harmful to you when you thought that you could trust them.”

I went through a situation that really brought this idiom to life. After taking on a new role in the new campus building, I was blindsided when my former colleagues didn’t share crucial information about important testing dates. It felt like a betrayal because I was still part of their department, and these dates were tied to a potential bonus. It was a real stab-in-the-back moment.

Variations of the Idiom

Here are a few variations of the idiom: 

  • Knifed in the back
  • Backstabbed
  • A stab in the back

How Is Stabbed in the Back Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom stabbed in the back vividly encapsulates the emotional impact of betrayal, especially when it comes from an unexpected source like a friend or ally. To delve into its versatile usage, the following sections offer valuable insights: 

What Are the Different Ways to Use Stabbed in the Back?

Remember to use the phrase appropriately and consider the tone, context, and purpose of your communication. Ensure that the phrase’s usage aligns with the desired impact and conveys the intended meaning effectively.

  • Betrayal by friends: “Emori felt truly stabbed in the back when she discovered that her closest friend had been spreading rumors about her behind her back.”
  • Unexpected workplace betrayal: “Murphy experienced the ultimate betrayal when a colleague he trusted stabbed him in the back by taking credit for his innovative project idea during a meeting with higher-ups.”
  • Political betrayal: “The political leader felt deeply stabbed in the back when a longtime ally unexpectedly switched sides, joining the opposing party and revealing sensitive information.”
  • Relationship infidelity: “Monty was devastated when he found out about his partner’s affair, feeling like he had been stabbed in the back by the person he trusted the most.”
  • Professional sabotage: “Indra perceived her coworker’s attempt to undermine her work as a clear case of being stabbed in the back, as she had always supported their collaborative efforts.”

Where Can You Find Examples of Stabbed in the Back?

Examples of the phrase stabbed in the back can be found in various sources, including literature, movies, news articles, and personal accounts.

Online gossip columns, editorials, and various reporting sources often use the expression to indicate unwarranted surprises and feelings of tension. For instance:

I would be upset if he stabbed me in the back, just based on first impressions. (The Hollywood Reporter)

The classic hard-right trope is the “stab in the back” myth, of a great national project – normally going to war—betrayed by internal subversion and a lack of fight. (The Guardian)

What Are Some Tips for Using Stabbed in the Back Effectively?

Use the following tips to help your audience understand the full context of the expression stabbed in the back:

  • Understand the meaning and context: Familiarize yourself with the figurative meaning of the expression, which refers to being betrayed or deceived by someone you trusted. 
  • Use it metaphorically: Stabbed in the back is a metaphorical expression, so ensure that your usage is appropriate for situations involving betrayal or deception.
  • Balance with other expressions: While stabbed in the back is a powerful expression, it’s important to balance its usage with other appropriate phrases to avoid overusing it or sounding repetitive.
  • Adapt the intensity: For less severe situations, use milder synonyms such as betrayed or double-crossed.
  • Use it sparingly: Overusing it may dilute its impact.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Stabbed in the Back?

Stabbed in the Back Ngram
Stabbed in the back usage trend.

Tracing back to post-World War I Germany, the expression stabbed in the back was first identified in a report issued in December 1918. The write-up, published in the Neue Züricher Zeitung, used this phrase as seen below:

“As far as the German army is concerned, the general view is summarized in these words: It was stab-in-the-back by the civilian population.”

The German military felt a sense of betrayal by the politicians who penned “The Treaty of Versailles,” notwithstanding their insurmountable odds. Ironically, the German populace accused the Jewish politicians of causing their war defeat. This sentiment became a prominent narrative used by Hitler to rise to power a decade later.

However, the expression’s use is likely much, much older, as its concept can be traced back to the assassination of Julius Caesar. In 44 BC, Caesar was stabbed multiple times by members of the Senate as they surrounded and murdered him over fears he would become a dictator and challenge the political powers they held. These were his colleagues and, in many cases, friends. The first stabs were from the side and behind as they surprised him upon the senate steps.

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

For many years, the expression has been used to indicate a betrayal of trust in political and economic circles. Today, we use the phrase to suggest any form of treachery or grave breach of trust. 

What Are Some Related Terms to Stabbed in the Back?

To better understand this term, consider alternative expressions that embody the meaning of betrayal and deception. 

Stabbed in the Back – Uncovering Betrayal 2


  • Betrayed
  • Double-crossed
  • Turned against
  • Schemed behind one’s back
  • Deceived


  • Loyalty
  • Trustworthy
  • Faithful
  • Reliable
  • Supportive
  • Honest

Stabbed in the Back: Test Your Knowledge!

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Let’s Review

The idiom stabbed in the back is a powerful expression that metaphorically represents the experience of being betrayed or deceived by someone trusted. It conveys a deep sense of hurt and a breach of trust. This figurative phrase is commonly used to describe situations where someone’s actions or words go against expectations and cause emotional pain. 

By understanding the meaning and impact of stabbed in the back, individuals can effectively communicate instances of betrayal and emphasize the severity of the resulting emotional turmoil.