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Waxing Pedantic

So what’s the story with backstory? Though I’ve never particularly liked the word—bit on the redundant side, isn’t it?—I’m fine with its (occasional) usage as long as it’s employed correctly. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

backstory (noun) a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)

And here’s

backstory (noun) a narrative providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series

Pretty clear, yeah? Dumb and unnecessary, but clear.

And yet here’s Colin Nagy writing about the recent prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S.: “We’ll never know the true backstory behind these cases. But it is interesting to see the commonality: Russia snapping up American citizens with a convenient military background on trumped-up charges, and holding them as political chits.”

“Backstory behind”? That there’s straight from the Department of Redundancies Department. If a backstory is a narrative that provides background context, then you don’t need to add behind. It’s the very definition of the word. Not to mention that these are real-life events, not works of fiction.

This is the problem with neologisms (the first known use of backstory dates to 1982): Once they’ve wormed their way into the lexicon, it’s not long before they’re everywhere. I mean, a cliché is one thing, but a cliché where it doesn’t even belong? Maddening—especially since the fix is so easy: “the true stories behind these cases.” (Note the switch from the singular backstory to the plural stories. There are plural cases; therefore there are plural stories.)

Why does any of this matter? Because, as John Boyle O’Reilly said at the opening address of the Papyrus Club’s inaugural ladies’ night, “the right word fitly spoken is a precious rarity.”



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