Understanding the Idiom: "get someone's back up" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
  • See Thesaurus:annoy and Thesaurus:enrage

When we communicate with others, we often use idioms to express ourselves. An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning that differs from its literal meaning. One such idiom is “get someone’s back up.” This phrase refers to causing someone to become angry or defensive.

The Origins of “Get Someone’s Back Up”

The exact origin of the idiom “get someone’s back up” is unclear. However, it is believed to have originated in the 19th century when people used horses for transportation. When a horse was agitated or angry, it would arch its back and raise its hair as a sign of aggression. This behavior was likened to humans becoming defensive or angry when provoked.

Usage and Examples

The idiom “get someone’s back up” is commonly used in informal settings such as conversations between friends or family members. It can be used in various contexts where one person feels offended or threatened by another person’s words or actions.

For example:

– His comment about her weight really got her back up.

– The boss’ criticism got John’s back up.

– Don’t say anything negative about his favorite sports team; it’ll get his back up.

In each example above, the speaker uses the idiom “get someone’s back up” to describe how another person became upset or defensive due to something said or done by another individual.

Idiomatic Expression Literal Meaning Figurative Meaning
Get someone’s back up N/A To cause someone to become angry or defensive.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “get someone’s back up”

The idiom “get someone’s back up” is a common expression used in English to describe a situation where someone becomes angry or defensive. The origins of this phrase are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in the world of animal behavior.

In many animals, including dogs and cats, raising one’s fur on their back is a sign of aggression or defensiveness. This physical response serves as a warning to potential threats that they should back off or face attack. It is possible that humans adapted this behavior into language by using the phrase “get someone’s back up” to describe when an individual feels threatened or provoked.

Historically, the idiom has been used for centuries in various forms. In Shakespearean times, for example, it was common to use phrases like “set my teeth on edge” or “make my blood boil” to convey similar emotions. However, over time, the phrase “get someone’s back up” became more popularized and widely recognized as a way of expressing anger or irritation.

Today, this idiom remains relevant in modern society as people continue to encounter situations that cause them frustration and annoyance. Whether it be due to personal interactions with others or external circumstances beyond our control, getting one’s back up can be a natural response when we feel threatened or challenged.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “get someone’s back up”

When we say that something “gets someone’s back up,” it means that it has caused them to become angry or defensive. This idiom is often used in situations where someone feels attacked or criticized, and it can be a signal for others to tread carefully.

While the basic meaning of this idiom remains consistent, there are many variations in how it can be used. For example, some people might say that something “gets their hackles up” instead of their back, while others might use more colorful language like “puts a bee in their bonnet.”

In addition to these variations in wording, there are also different contexts where this idiom might be appropriate. It could refer to a specific incident or situation that made someone angry, or it could describe a more general feeling of being on edge.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “get someone’s back up”


There are several phrases that can be used instead of “get someone’s back up” to convey a similar idea. For instance, one could say “irritate,” “annoy,” or “provoke.” These words all imply that something has caused a negative reaction in another person.


The opposite of getting someone’s back up would be to soothe or calm them down. Other antonyms include placate and appease. These words suggest an attempt to pacify or make peace with someone who is upset.

Cultural Insights

The interpretation of idioms can vary depending on cultural context. In some cultures, getting someone’s back up may not be seen as a negative thing but rather as a sign of strength or assertiveness. In other cultures, it may be viewed as disrespectful or confrontational. It is important to consider these nuances when communicating with people from different backgrounds.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “get someone’s back up”

Exercise 1: Identify the Context

Read a passage or listen to a conversation where the idiom “get someone’s back up” is used. Try to identify the context in which it is being used and what emotions or reactions are being conveyed by the speaker. This exercise will help you understand how this expression can be applied in different situations.

Exercise 2: Role Play

Create scenarios where one person says something that could potentially “get someone’s back up.” Practice responding appropriately using the idiom, either by diffusing the situation or expressing frustration. This exercise will help you develop your communication skills and learn how to use idioms effectively in real-life situations.

Note: It is important to remember that idioms should be used appropriately and not overused in everyday speech. Use them sparingly and only when they add value to your message.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “get someone’s back up”

One mistake people often make when using this idiom is assuming that it means getting someone angry or upset. While this can be a result of getting someone’s back up, the actual meaning of the idiom refers to causing someone to become defensive or feel threatened.

Another mistake people make is using the idiom in inappropriate situations. For example, saying “I got my boss’s back up by disagreeing with him” may not be appropriate if you are trying to maintain a positive relationship with your boss. It is important to consider the context and tone of your conversation before using any idiomatic expressions.

A third mistake people make when using this idiom is failing to understand its origins and cultural connotations. The phrase comes from cockfighting, where a rooster would raise its feathers on its back as a sign of aggression and readiness for battle. Understanding these origins can help you use the expression more appropriately and effectively.

Leave a Reply

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: