Etymology of Aback
Aback comes from the Middle English abak.
It is often combined with take to form the very common expression taken aback.
You may think of aback as a combination of a (towards) and bak (back).
Walter W. Skeat’s The Etymological Dictionary of the English Language explains that the earliest use of this word was in 1840.
Interestingly, this was also when the phrase to give cheek—to be insolent—was first encountered.
Aback is also related to the Old English on bæc.
In Justin Cord Hayes’ The Unexpected Evolution of Language, it is explained that the expression “taken aback” first appeared for nautical reasons and referred to an instance when the square sails of a ship were pressed back because of poor navigation or an unexpected shift of the wind.
Thus, “taken aback” became the bread and butter of a sailor’s language; a verbal play that has never been forgotten; a true testament to the strength of the English language as well as its enduring power.
“Taken Aback” in Other Languages
Taken aback is a unique phrase in English, and it is often difficult to explain its meaning to a foreigner.
For example, in Spanish, taken aback can be translated as tomado por sorpresa (taken by surprise) or dejar atónito (astounded).
In Italian, you would say that being taken aback means sorpreso or spiazzato.
In French you might say surpris or déconcerté.
None of these translations, however, can truly capture the soul of taken aback.
Hayes, Justin Cord. The Unexpected Evolution of Language: Discover the Surprising Etymology of Everyday Words : Includes 200 Terms and Their Shocking Transformations. Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2012.
Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.
Skeat, Walter W. The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993.