Understanding the Idiom: "break the back of" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

The idiom “break the back of” is a commonly used expression in English language that refers to accomplishing a difficult or challenging task. It is often used to describe an action that requires significant effort, skill, or determination.


The origin of this idiom is unclear, but it may have originated from agricultural practices where farmers would break the backs of stubborn animals like oxen to make them more compliant. The term has since evolved to refer to any task that requires significant effort.

Usage Examples

Here are some examples of how “break the back of” can be used in everyday conversation:

“I finally broke the back of my dissertation after months of hard work.”

“We need to break the back of poverty in our community by providing better education opportunities.”

“She managed to break the back of her addiction with help from a support group.”

Variations on this phrase include “break someone’s back,” which means to cause someone great difficulty or hardship, and “put one’s back into it,” which means to exert maximum effort towards a goal.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “break the back of”

The idiom “break the back of” is a common expression used in English language, which refers to completing a difficult or challenging task. The origins of this phrase can be traced back to ancient times when people relied on animals for transportation and farming. Breaking the back of an animal was considered a crucial step in training them for work.

Over time, this phrase evolved to include various other contexts such as breaking the backbone of an army during war or breaking the backbone of an industry by introducing new technology. The idiom has been widely used in literature, politics, and everyday conversations.

In modern times, “breaking the back” has become synonymous with overcoming obstacles and achieving success through hard work and perseverance. This phrase continues to hold relevance today as individuals strive towards their goals despite facing numerous challenges along the way.

Understanding the historical context behind idioms like “break the back of” helps us appreciate their significance and use them appropriately in our daily lives.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “break the back of”

One variation of this idiom is “to break someone’s back,” which means to cause someone to become exhausted or overwhelmed with work or responsibilities. Another variation is “to have one’s back broken,” which means to suffer a major setback or defeat.

The phrase can also be used in different contexts, such as sports or business. In sports, breaking the back of an opponent refers to gaining a significant advantage over them, while in business, it can refer to overcoming a major obstacle or challenge.

It’s important to note that this idiom should not be taken literally. It does not actually involve breaking anyone’s physical back but rather describes overcoming a difficult task or situation through hard work and perseverance.


– After months of hard work, we finally broke the back of our project and were able to launch it successfully.

– The team broke the back of their opponents with three quick goals in the first half.

– Despite facing numerous setbacks, she refused to give up until she had broken the back of her financial troubles.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “break the back of”


  • Conquer
  • Overcome
  • Defeat
  • Vanquish
  • Obliterate

When we say someone has “broken the back of” a task or problem, it means they have accomplished a significant portion of it. Synonyms such as conquer, overcome, defeat, vanquish and obliterate all convey similar ideas. For example: “She conquered her fear of public speaking by practicing every day”, or “The team overcame their opponents in a thrilling match”.


  • Fail
  • Lose ground on
  • Falter at
  • Weaken against
  • Succumb to

On the other hand, antonyms such as fail, lose ground on, falter at , weaken against , succumb to all suggest an inability to achieve success in overcoming a challenge. For instance: “Despite his best efforts he failed to break the back of his addiction”, or “The company lost ground on its competitors due to poor marketing strategies”.

Cultural Insights:

The idiom “break the back” is commonly used in English-speaking countries such as Australia and Britain. It originated from farming practices where breaking the backbone (spine) was necessary when taming wild horses or oxen. The phrase then evolved into everyday language meaning that one had accomplished a difficult task with great effort.

Practical Exercises for Mastering the Idiom “Overcoming a Difficult Task”

If you want to become fluent in English, it’s important to understand idioms and be able to use them correctly. One common idiom is “break the back of”, which means to overcome a difficult task or make significant progress towards completing it.

Exercise 1: Identify the Meaning

Read through several examples of the idiom in context, such as:

“I finally broke the back of that project I’ve been working on.”

“We need to break the back of this problem before it gets any worse.”

Then, write down what you think each example means. Compare your answers with a partner or teacher.

Exercise 2: Use It in Context

Create sentences using “break the back of” that demonstrate your understanding of its meaning. For example:

“After months of studying, I finally broke the back of my fear of speaking English.”

“Our team worked tirelessly to break the back of our competition and come out on top.”

You can also try incorporating other vocabulary words into your sentences for an added challenge!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “break the back of”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meanings and usage in order to avoid common mistakes. The idiom “break the back of” is no exception.

Mistake #1: Taking the Literal Meaning

The idiom “break the back of” does not actually refer to physically breaking someone’s spine. Instead, it means to complete or accomplish a difficult task that was previously hindering progress. It is important to use this idiom figuratively rather than literally.

Mistake #2: Overusing the Idiom

While idioms can add color and flair to language, overusing them can make writing or speaking sound cliché or unoriginal. It is important to use idioms sparingly and only when they truly enhance your message.

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