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Broke the Back of It

Posted by Smokey Stover on July 28, 2005

In Reply to: Broke the Back of It posted by James Briggs on July 28, 2005

: : : : Hi All,
: : : : I'm trying to find the origin of the phrase: Broke the Back of It, as in nearer completion of a task or getting the worst over and done with. I've asked where I work and have been given the following suggestions: linked to back breaking work; breaking the back of a book as you're reading through it, something to do with straws and camels; breaking someone's back as in rendering them impotent.
: : : : Does anyone know if any of these are correct or what the real answer is?
: : : : Any help and seuggestions very welcome.
: : : : Cheers
: : : : Mike

: : : Well, if you are trying to kill something -- human or animal -- a good start is to break its back. (And I don't know that from personal experience.) That's a guess but I feel I'm on pretty firm ground.

: : Kind of related phrase:

: : I WISH THAT THING WAS IN THE FER FORK OF HELL WITH ITS BACK BROKE - An old mountaineer "cussing his mowing machine." From "Mountaineers would 'cross hell on a rotten rail' to be colorful," a column by Byron Crawford, late 1981, The Courier Journal, Louisville, Ky.

: Surely this is a reference to 'the last straw that broke the camel's back'. This certainly stopped the camel being even more loaded - his back was broken and his task was ended. By extension, all tasks coming to and end may be associated with a metaphorical 'broken back'.

The phrasing of your phrase makes it sound as though "got the worst of it over" was the intended meaning, and the most common figurative meaning. You meantioned something about "broke the back of a book." If someone actually used that phrase, they may have meant "broke the spine." The spine is where the sewn gatherings are lined up and either sown or glued together, then attached to the covers in binding. When the books are lined up on the shelf, it is the spines that you see. Damaging the spine happens often and is dreaded in libraries and bookstores. Of course, the front of the book and the back of the book (not used in the context of breakage) are the earliest pages and the last pages.

Why use "broke the back of it" in its figurative meaning? You have destroyed the ability of the task (especially one with no real physical component) to offer resistance. Or something like that. SS

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