(Harry opening his present from Hermione...)

His heart gave a huge bound as he ripped back the paper and saw a sleek black leather case, with silver words stamped across it, reading Broomstick Servicing Kit.

I couldn't find the definition of "rip back" from any dictionaries. It might not be a fixed collocation. I might think "rip away" could probably fit for the context. What does it truly mean?

up vote 7 down vote accepted

"Back" is a relative direction, and when describing the process of unwrapping something (such as a wrapped gift, as in your example), or peeling back a layer of something (such as the peel on fruit) it is common to use the word "back" to denote that you are lifting something away from the surface of something else.

So for example:

He peeled back the sheets and got into bed.

or

She peeled back the label from the jar.

  • I suspect the use of 'back' is specific to the object being ripped - i.e. the paper (wrapping). He could also have 'ripped off the wrapping' or 'ripped open the wrapping'. But as the object here is the actual wrapping paper 'ripped back' (as in tear away to reveal the contents of the present) seems more appropriate. – charmer Nov 9 at 14:55
  • Can this use of 'back' be applied to locks for doors? I believe I've seen it's used, but I forget the exact phrase. Maybe, something like pull back the lock, pull back the latch/bar, or something. It means unlock the door. I just don't remember it well. – dan Nov 9 at 15:35

With respect to your suggestion that away might be better here. I think there may be a subtle difference in connotation between away and back.

rip back suggests that what was inside was being exposed to view, whereas rip away could suggest not only that but something a little more forceful, that the paper was being torn off.

  • Can this use of 'back' be applied to locks for doors? I believe I've seen it's used, but I forget the exact phrase. Maybe, something like pull back the lock, pull back the latch/bar, or something. It means unlock the door. I just don't remember it well. – dan Nov 9 at 21:29
  • 1
    @dan: Yes, you could say pulled back the latch. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 9 at 21:32

To me, "rip back" gives the impression that the paper was being ripped away from the tear, thus basically folding (or at least, being pulled on top of) other portions of the paper. Imagine you have a package, and you grab the paper at the top of a side and pull down. This creates a tear at the top of that side, and you are ripping the paper away, or back, from that tear. You will now have two layers of paper at the bottom of that side: the layer of wrapping paper that was originally covering the bottom of the side, and the layer that used to be covering the top.

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