Like it sounds, to backpedal is to try to back up and fix a mistake, change what you said, or entirely take back what you said.
That’s figurative backpedalling, and it’s usually awkward. Literal backpedalling can be graceful: it’s something bicyclists do, and it’s also a technique that athletes like boxers and football players use, a kind of light, controlled backwards run.
BACK ped ull
Part of speech:
Verb, usually the intransitive kind (“they backpedalled hard,” “she backpedalled on the promise”)
and sometimes the transitive kind (“he backpedalled his earlier statement”).
(If you prefer, use a single “l” instead of a double: “backpedaled,” “backpedaling.”)
(Sometimes you’ll see a hyphen: “back-pedal,” “back-pedalled,” “back-pedalling.” Hyphens help us process units of meaning that might surprise us in combination, but in this case, it’s not really needed; we’ve been talking and writing about backpedalling since 1887.)
How to use it:
The key here, again, is that backpedalling is usually awkward. It’s hard to say “Wait, wait, wait, uh, that’s not what I meant” or “Um, uh, okay, I’ve got to take that back” without looking panicked and dorky, and that kind of clumsiness is perfectly conveyed in this word.
In general, we backpedal for two reasons. First, we realize we were wrong or that we offended someone. And second, we realize we have no intention of delivering on our promises, so we’re snatching them back.
So, talk about people backpedalling, often on a statement, a comment, a claim, a promise, or a commitment they made earlier.
“Secretary of State David Whitley spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since his office questioned the citizenship of thousands of Texas voters since 1996. But the state quickly backpedaled after discovering scores of voters were wrongly flagged.”
— Paul J. Weber, AP News, 7 February 2019
“Unfortunately, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food …has said that there was absolutely no risk of certain things happening [such as outbreaks of disease]; most of them have now happened, and the ministry is continually backpedalling to reassure the public.”
— Jeremy J. Cherfas, Round Table Discussion on BIOSCIENCE ? SOCIETY, 2013