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From Middle English bakbon, bakebon, bac-bon; equivalent to back +‎ bone. Compare the semantically analogous English ridgebone.



backbone (countable and uncountable, plural backbones)

  1. The series of vertebrae, separated by disks, that encloses and protects the spinal cord, and runs down the middle of the back in vertebrate animals.
  2. (figuratively) Any fundamental support, structure, or infrastructure.
    Before automobiles, railroads were a backbone of commerce.
    • 1959 April, P. Ransome-Wallis, “The Southern in Trouble on the Kent Coast”, in Trains Illustrated, London: Ian Allan Publishing, ISSN 0141-9935, OCLC 35845948, page 212:
      With little regular employment available in East Kent the backbone of the Kent Coast passenger traffic is therefore the commuters, the not inconsiderable numbers of people who travel each day to their work in Faversham, Sittingbourne, the Medway Towns and most of all, London.
  3. (figuratively) Courage, fortitude, or strength.
    He would make a good manager, if he had a little more backbone.
    • 1899, Joseph Conrad, chapter I, in Heart of Darkness:
      His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen.



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