The English Pedant – Kick back in anger

Get your slightly naughty enjoyment on Route 66

Kick is a word that has bounced along through the decades, picking up new meanings. Originally it meant simply to hit with the top or side of a foot, and many of us grew up kicking anything we found on the ground, from footballs and stones to empty cigarette packets and the heads of dandelions.

In the 1950s the expression ‘to get your kicks’ – i.e. have your fun – was popular, but had in fact been around quite a while. Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick out Of You was first heard in 1934.

Then came the beatnik-style “She’s on a health kick”, later to be neo-hippied up to a health (or whatever) “trip”.

chuck berry
Chuck Berry allegedly got his kicks by installing hidden cameras in the ladies’ toilets at his restaurant

While the force that hits the user when firing a gun was always known as a kick, it also moved into the language of describing bribery and corruption, where a sum of money paid for favours such as turning a blind eye became known as a kickback.

Spicy food or alcoholic drinks may be said to have “quite a kick”, which goes back to the original meaning, as does “kick the habit”, and it might have seemed that the heyday of the word was past.

Then along came a new use for it: what used to be “sit back and relax” became “kick back”, and here the delinquent word suddenly entered the lounge, the land of comfy shoes and the gentle art of taking it easy. How did this come to pass?

If it really is a sign that words have a youth, a maturity and an old age, it could refer to the phenomenon of the built-in foot rest in armchairs and sofas, which you activate with your heels. Thus to kick back is to put your feet up.

I can’t help thinking, though, that it is not the elderly who “kick back” but the comparatively lively, energetic young male adult who, exhausted from working all week, 10 pints of lager and a curry on Friday and Saturday night and playing football on Sunday morning, wants to recline in the comfort of his mock-leather lounger and doze off to the gentle sound of some 80s rock music while his wife or perhaps “WAG” (acronym of wives and girlfriends) makes the tea and slices the Battenburg as her mother did before her.

This guy is part of the generations of British young men incapable of saying “Thank you” because it sounds too soft, and who will use the drinking term “Cheers!” instead. Kick back belongs to them.

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