"Let's Move it to the Back Burner" - Meaning, Uses and Responses to American English Idioms

"Let's move it to the back burner."  

"Since I had an emergency bug to fix, I had put the normal work on the back burner so that I could get this bug fixed."  
"I already have two other to-dos on the back burner. I'd prefer to catch up before thinking about that."  

The above statements are some examples of "back burner" used in ordinary work-related conversations. So, what does "back burner" mean?  

Literal Meaning
In the U.S., many cooking stoves have four burners; two in the front and two in the back. If someone was doing a lot of cooking, they may put some stuff on the back burner that doesn't need so much attention as the stuff on the front burners. 

Figurative or Idiomatic Meaning 
When we put something 'on the back burner' it means we are re-prioritizing our work. For example, let's say I have three tasks: 

  1. Email team about project kickoff 
  2. Call the client to plan the kickoff meeting 
  3. Organize the meeting room for the kickoff meeting 

I am ready to complete these tasks in exactly this order. However, as I get started, my manager comes up to me and says, "We have to hold off on the project kick off due to some unforeseen resource management challenges. Can you help me to restructure the team to assure we have enough people for this project?" 

Obviously, organizing the resources is critical to kicking off of the project, so I may respond to my manager by saying, "Sure Tom, I'll put all my other kick off meeting planning on the back burner until we resolve this. Is that ok with you?" 

Video Tutorial
Let's see how Rachel of Rachel's English shows us how to use and pronounce the phrase "back burner."

How to Respond
Sometimes with American colleagues use idioms, it is not always clear how to respond. If we know an idiom's meaning, we can translate the idiom into plain English in our mind, then we can try to respond appropriately. Let's take a look at how we may respond to the statements using the idiom 'back burner' that were listed at the beginning of this post.

Sentence with idiom: "Let's move it to the back burner." 
Plain English meaning: "Let's move this down the priority list and do it later."
Sentence with idiom: "Since I had an emergency bug to fix, I had put the normal work on the back burner so that I could get this bug fixed." 
Plain English meaning: "Since I had an emergency bug to fix, I couldn't finish the normal work scheduled for today."

Sentence with idiom: "I already have two other to-dos on the back burner. I'd prefer to catch up before thinking about that."
Plain English meaning: "I already have two other to-dos that I had to delay finishing. I'd prefer to work on those before thinking about that." 

I have only translated the idiomatic statements into plain English. I have not provided responses. If you have ideas for responses, feel free to add them in the comments section below. I would be happy to give you some feedback! 

I hope the tips in this post help you to understand, use and respond to the idiom "back burner."

Jennifer Kumar helps non-native English speakers communicate with more clarity in cross-cultural business meetings and daily interactions with Americans and other native English speakers through business communication and culture workshops. Contact us for more information.  

Related Posts: 
Bite the bullet - another idiom about getting things done! 
Tips for American colleagues and managers to be better understood by Indian counterparts 
Down to the Wire - yet another idiom about being in a time crunch 

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