take aback

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From take + aback, see the two entries for their respective etymology.


take aback (third-person singular simple present takes aback, present participle taking aback, simple past took aback, past participle taken aback)

  1. (idiomatic, transitive) To surprise or shock; to discomfit.
    I was rather taken aback by his angry reply.
    The bad news took us aback.
    • 1807, William Cobbett, Cobbett's Political Register, Vol. XI., London: Cox and Baylis, page 121:
      I was, at first, a little taken aback and astounded at the bulk of the volume; but, I turned out early this morning, and with eager hope and expectation set doggedly to work in search of the promised consolation.
    • 1808, The Post-Captain: A View of Naval Society and Manners, 3rd edition, London: Thomas Tegg, page 165:
      I would rather board a hundred of the enemy's frigates, than steer my boat into a fleet of modest women, for a modest woman never fails to take me aback.
    • 1998, Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring, Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, page 156:
      Frank was taken aback when Lisa told him that she also needed forgiveness from him, for actions, for words, and for unspoken thoughts.
    • 2000, Rupert Thomson, Soft!, page 292:
      In a way, he was taken aback by the absence of discouragement.
    • 2000, Tanith Lee, White as Snow, New York: Tom Doherty Associates, page 105:
      She was not taken aback to find he lived in a ramshackle log hut among the trees.
    • 2001, Anna Gilbert, A Morning in Eden, New York: St. Martin's Press, page 9:
      She was a little taken aback to find the front door of heavy oak unlocked.
    • 2002, Russell Miller, Behind the Lines: The Oral History of Special Operations in World War II, New York: St. Martin's Press, page 178:
      Zervas was rather taken aback to learn that Ares Veloutiotes, the communist leader, was on his way to the village because there was no friendship between them.
    • 2008, Denis Noble, The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes, page 123:
      The physiologist is taken aback.
    • 2014, Steve Rose, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: a primate scream - first look review", The Guardian, 1 July 2014:
      They haven't seen humans for years, so when a small expedition, led by Jason Clarke, stumbles into apetopia, both sides are taken aback.
  2. (nautical, usually passive) Of a ship: to catch it with the sails aback suddenly.

Usage notes[edit]

  • Most commonly found in the passive voice.
  • Aback is an adverb, so take aback is a separable phrasal verb.
  • The use of the work take implies that the action is happening unexpectedly or against one's will. The sails of a ship are said to be taken aback by a change in the relative direction of the wind, but they are laid aback purposely by the crew. Likewise, someone may say he was taken aback when surprised.