Cracking the Code

By Cecilia Golumbeanu

The online Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word backlash as “a sudden violent backward movement or reaction; the play between adjacent movable parts (as in a series of gears),” and as “a strong adverse reaction (as to a recent political or social development).” These meanings do not vary greatly from the first known proper use of the term in 1815 or from its figurative sense recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1921.

So is it a recoil or a snarl? A secondary or a negative effect? It seems that the force of this term resides in its unambiguous source (mechanics) and transferred sense (unintended consequence of going into the opposite direction).

Let’s read it in the context of a Supreme Court opinion from 2010 related to the auto manufacturing industry: “[The Department of Transportation] worried that requiring airbags in most or all vehicles would cause a public backlash, like the backlash against interlock devices.”1

Here is a second example from social media advertising from 2015: “[This expert] says the lesson should be to stop tweeting and reassess a campaign as soon as a backlash begins. ‘I’m definitely using this campaign as an example in the crisis management class I teach next year, because it’s a good example of what not to do,’ he says.”2

How would you translate this healthy but antagonistic reaction in your first language and in how many words can you safely do it?

[Cecilia Golumbeanu is on the editorial staff of Proteus. See her full bio here.]


[1] 2011, Supreme Court of the United States, Williamson et al. v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., et al., Certiorari to the Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three. Retrieved from

[2] Davey, Melissa (2015). Hashtag backlash: marketing campaigns that turned into social media disasters. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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