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Word of the Week: 'backstop'


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘backstop’.

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For many Brits, the term ‘backstop’ evokes memories of frolicking in PE shorts and plimsolls in a poop-filled school field during a game of rounders. Now, such golden nostalgia has been cruelly tainted. As we have matured, so too has backstop evolved from a childhood memory to one big and baffling Brexit bombshell.

‘The backstop’, ‘Brexit backstop’ and crucially ‘what is the backstop?’ have all become breakout searches on Google in the last week, after becoming one of the key issues hindering the (otherwise totally smooth) Brexit negotiations.

The surge in search volumes for these terms (Google defines breakout as 5000% or higher growth) came as Theresa May cancelled Tuesday’s ‘meaningful vote’, in the face of an ever-widening impasse over the current backstop arrangement.

So, what does ‘backstop’ mean?    

As a noun, first recorded in the early 1800s, it refers to “a screen serving to prevent a ball from going too far out of the normal playing area”. It also, more broadly refers to a “person or thing that provides dependable support or protection against failure or loss”. Eek.

The first definition has already been touched on. In the grand old game of rounders (if you’re reading this in the US, think softball or baseball), the ‘backstop’ is the fielder who stands directly behind the batter (or hitter). They attempt to catch the ball if the batter fails to hit it – his loss is their gain. It is always reassuring when the political future of a nation is best understood in terms of a childhood game.

The Urban Dictionary (handle with care) has a totally different and typically idiosyncratic definition of the term ‘backstop’, but one that still comes back to the idea of taking preventative measures in the hope of gaining ground at someone else’s expense:

“If your underground stop is full of commuters and you get on the train going in the opposite direction to board one stop earlier, guaranteeing yourself a spot on the train” – you’re backstopping.

Again, in different terms, we are talking about ‘backstop’ as a kind of insurance policy. Whether you’re a rushed commuter trying to ensure you’re not late to work, or a panic-stricken Prime Minister trying to ensure the United Kingdom isn’t divided and subject to a hard border.

Unfortunately for Mrs May, it seems like the Brexit has chugged off without her, leaving her stranded at the station. Taxi for the PM, please!               

Joe McAweaney