back water v phr [Transf from naut use: see quots 1859, 1945] Cf backwater n 1
To retreat, withdraw, as from an argument or position.
1841 Goshen Democrat (IN) 22 July /2 (newspaperarchive.com), You have blowed up a beautiful humbug, but it is a mere Soap bubble. Your own political friends call you a fool for it, and you had better back water while you’re young, for when you’re old you can’t. 1859 (1968) Bartlett Americanisms, To back water. . . To retreat, or withdraw; a Western metaphor, derived from steamboat language. 1905 DN 3.2 cCT, Back water. . . Withdraw. 1907 DN 3.208 nwAR. 1919 Kyne Capt. Scraggs 150 CA, In order to earn that fifty dollars, I got to back water. It wouldn’t be playin’ fair if I didn’t. 1945 Colcord Sea Language 28 ME, Cape Cod, Long Island, Back water. To row a boat backwards. In shore speech it means to retract or hedge. 1950 PADS 14.12 SC, Back water. . . To retreat; to withdraw from a position, attitude, or opinion. 1952 Brown NC Folkl. 1.517 c, eNC, Backwater. . . To retreat, to change front. 1954 Harder Coll. cwTN. c1960 Wilson Coll. csKY, When I began to tell him off, he began to back water. 1965–70 DARE (Qu. II31, . . “He saw that he was wrong, so he started to _____.”) 28 Infs, chiefly Nth, Atlantic, Back water; ME5, Backwatered; (Qu. JJ25, . . “He thought he could take the place over, but I made him _____.”) 9 Infs, NEast, Back water. 1975 Daily Herald–News (Punta Gorda FL) 9 Sept 4/2, They raised the right questions and made the right points. And the Commission backed water. 1987 Young Latchpins 123 ceTN (as of 1920s–1930s), Oldtimers said that he wouldn’t back water from even the biggest man. 1988 New Mexican (Santa Fe NM) 2 May sec A 7/1, The administration likely backed water on that plan to reduce popular and congressional opposition to its plan to cover merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf with a U.S. defense umbrella.