What does the expression “to back and fill” mean and Where does it come from?

The expression “to back and fill” means to shilly-shally; to be vacillating or irresolute; to assert and deny, hem and haw; not to know if one is on one’s head or heels.

Originally this was said of ships, of sailing ships especially, attempting to negotiate a narrow channel when wind and tide were adverse and there was no room for tacking.

Under such conditions a vessel may be worked to windward by keeping it broadside on to the current in mid-channel by counter-bracing the yards or keeping the sails shivering, that is, alternately backing and filling the sails.

what does the expression to back and fill mean and where does it come from

The progress of the ship is thus alternately backward and forward, in herringbone pattern; hence, anything that appears to do nothing more than to recede and advance, to vacillate, is said to back and fill.

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Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist for zippyfacts.com. Born in New York, she loves interesting random facts from all over the world.