I'm not sure about the meaning of the phrase "pluck back" in this passage of Margaret Mead's Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

The ghosts themselves are residents of the lands, and a man going upon his own inherited land will announce himself, his name and relationship to them, remarking: "It is I, your grandson, of Kanehoibis. I have come to cut some posts for my house. Do not object to my presence, nor to my timber-cutting. As I return, pluck back the brambles from my path, and bend back the branches so that I walk easily." This he must do even if he goes along on the land that he inherited from his forefathers.

I know the meaning of pluck with regards to plants meaning to pull out/rip.

  • Are you asking if there is a difference between pluck and pluck back? – J.R. Oct 6 '19 at 10:11
  • @J.R. I'm asking for the meaning, intuitively, I'd guess it's the opposite of pluck. – Probably Oct 6 '19 at 10:15

Imagine that brambles have grown from the sides of the path so that they partly cover the path. The word back in this sentence means that the frontier, or border, of the brambles should recede as a result of plucking them, so the brambles no longer cover the path. Consequently, the speaker will be able to walk along the path without stepping on brambles.

Back in this sense is an adverb meaning motion in the opposite direction from an earlier motion. You can see the same idea in these sentences:

In the following years, watch the growth of the tree and trim back any side branches growing taller than the leader. [Source: New England Gardener's Handbook (2012). This sentence also means to cut a plant to remove the parts grown most recently.]

If government and massive firms are to deliver on their promise of secure retirement, they now must shed other programs and public responsibilities. Central bureaucracies must pare back or offload other functions to local agencies or lightly regulated markets of nonprofit organizations. [Source: Organizing Locally (2015). The idea here is that central bureaucracies have grown like plants, and must reverse some of that growth by letting other organizations take over some of their responsibilities.]

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  • 1
    Thanks, also the other examples you're mentioned are very useful. – Probably Oct 6 '19 at 10:25

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