Verbal Energy

Walking back, to avoid climbing down

A pedestrian metaphor proves to have legs in this electoral season

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As the United States enters the final phase of an election season that has been going on since at least Jan. 21, 2009, it seems, we don't hear much about races deemed likely to be won "in a walk."

Nor are we hearing much about any given electoral race as a "cakewalk." This term is used mostly in the negative of late, and mostly to refer to sports contests.

Among teams recently in "no cakewalk" situations, per Google News, are the Green Bay Packers and the Indiana University basketball team, as well as the Minot (N.D.) High School football team.

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"Cakewalk" was the prediction from Kenneth Adelman, a conservative security and defense official, for the US war in Iraq. Things didn't quite work out that way, and if "cakewalk" has subsequently fallen out of political discourse, this may explain why.

The original "cakewalk," as Slate explained in 2003, was an informal dance African-Americans in the antebellum South invented. It was "intended to satirize the stiff ballroom promenades of white plantation owners." Dancers took part in contests, competing for slices of cake – hence the name. After emancipation, "cakewalk" came to mean "an easy task."

But it's the autumn of 2012, and there aren't many cakewalks here. The pedestrian metaphor that does seem to have real "legs" this season – on both sides of the political aisle – is "walking back."

It seems to be a variant on "backtracking," meant to be a little more neutral, and a little more dignified, than a "climbdown."

After the Oct. 3 presidential debate, in which Mitt Romney is widely seen as having trounced President Obama, the Orlando Sentinel offered a reader poll: "Is Mitt Romney reinventing himself?"

One of the answer choices was "Yes. He's now walking back from his primary plans to cut taxes for the rich, gut regulations for Wall Street, eviscerate everything in Obamacare, and punish all illegal immigrants."

That was clearly the answer button the Huffington Post would have pushed. Here's its analysis: "Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spent much of his first presidential debate ... walking back some of his core primary positions...."

Grammar geeks will notice the difference between the Sentinel's intransitive "walking back from and the HuffPost's transitive "walking back ... core ... positions."

The Daily Caller ran this piece by Neil Munro: "President Barack Obama's deputies are walking back his ground-breaking acknowledgment that Egypt is no longer an 'ally,' only one day after he declared that Mitt Romney tends to 'shoot first and aim later.'

"The pronouncement, or gaffe, apparently marked an informal end to the US government's 33-year alliance with Egypt. The attempted walk-back prompted taunts from GOP activists."

As often happens with a buzz phrase, "walking back" coexists in its literal uses as well as its metaphorical ones. In Oklahoma, for instance, the Tahlequah Daily Press reported recently on a 23-year-old monk who became the subject of a search-and-rescue mission involving "several fire departments and other agencies" after he got lost trying to catch up with a group of his brethren out on their daily walk. He spent the night in a cave – an appropriately monkish lodging, meseems – and while "walking back" the next day, stopped at a home where someone gave him a ride back to his abbey. He arrived "cold and wet" but safe and sound.

Walking back, it appears, can be a good way to find your way home – politically or otherwise.

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