In the back of his head?

中国日报网 2015-04-21 10:22



Reader question:In the back of his head?

Please explain this sentence: This project has been in the back of my head for some time.

Back of his head?

My comments:

Simple. The speaker has been wanting to do the project for some time but somehow hasn't been able to find the time to do it – until now.

You may safely infer that the project has not been very important to the speaker – otherwise he would have found time for it.

He would have made it a priority. He would have put it in front, so to speak, rather than the back of his head or mind.

If you queue up for a doctor in the hospital for example and you're in the back of the queue, you probably will have to wait for some time. The doctor will be able to examine you only after he or she has treated the other patients in front of you.

Similarly, if something is kept in the back of someone's head, or mind, then it's remembered. It's recalled every once in a while but never actively considered.

That's because it's not very important – at least it's not the most important thing on their priority list. Therefore, day by day, things on the top of one's priorities list get done while things kept in the back of one's mind get put off – and off. People don't find the time for them right now.

It's like something you're cooking being put on the back burner. That's usually something you're brewing, a grain soup or a pot of bones and meat, which requires a small fire and a lot of time. So you leave it on the back burner with a faint fire lit under it so that you may go on preparing other dishes, dishes that require your attention, constant attention.


Yes, I understand it so, too but know that it is a good question as well. It's just about good English. We Chinese learners are very good at mastering big words, such as serendipity and metamorphosis, but not very good at dainty nifty little phrases such as the back of their head.

Not to say big words are unimportant, but first things first, you got to give due respect to the small words. They're the nitty-gritty building blocks without which you won't have a solid foundation.

So, therefore, simple as it sounds, I don't think it a waste of our time to get into a phrase like the back of one's head.

Or mind. Same thing.

Oh, one more thing. Things you keep in the back of your head or mind, though not most important, are usually important enough to, erm, at least distract you from time to time. Take the thing stewing on the back burner, for example, you don't have to attend to it every other minute, sure, but you cannot ignore it altogether, either. It may burn dry, you know. Therefore, the thing to remember about things in the back of our head is they still are kind of important, too, in a way.

I mean they're important in some way, one way or the other – though none of us can recall exactly how.

Alright. Here are media examples of things people keep in that remote region – the back of their head or mind:

1. Dr. Stuart Steiner, president of Genesee Community College, said retirement has been in the back of his mind for a few years. But the time didn't feel right until now.

Steiner, 73, who has been associated with the college since its inception in the 1960s and its president since 1975, announced last week that he will retire in August 2011.

He said he wanted to end his career on a high note.

“My wife, who passed away about two years ago, gave me one piece of advice for when I should retire,” Steiner said as he sat at his desk, surrounded by family photos and pictures of notable visitors to the college. “She said I should do it at a time when things are going well. Since my whole life is invested in this college, she said it would be nice if when I left, I left things it in the best shape that it can be.”

When at the Board of Trustees retreat this summer, board members observed that in most measurable ways, GCC truly is at its best. Enrollment is at an all-time high and the college is doing well fiscally. The new Lima Campus Center is up and running, as is the new School of Nursing in Batavia. An elaborate art gallery is being constructed. Fundraising has also set records this year.

- For Dr. Stuart Steiner, leaving on a high note,, August 6, 2010.

2. Diane Sawyer walks away from ABC's “World News” anchor desk on top of the world — and with plans to see much more of it, sources close to her said.

She wasn't pushed out, friends insist, walking away was actually her idea — and one that she's quietly kept in the back of her mind for a long time.

Sawyer's friends note that like any reporter worth more than a nickel (and this one was reportedly pulling down around $20 million year), Sawyer wants to get out more — and the anchor desk, while intoxicatingly powerful, is confining.

Without the responsibility of showing up every day to anchor network news, Sawyer, 68, will now be free to focus the tail end of her career on reporting and telling the kind of stories she likes, a pal said.

And it's the storytelling that Sawyer relishes.

- Sawyer leaving ABC's ‘World News' because she didn't want to be anchored to desk job: sources,, August 27, 2014.

3. His seemingly effortless interview with Tony Blair in 2008 cut through Blair's crusader mentality in a mere six minutes, as Stewart calmly rejected Blair's theory that any kind of military action can keep the west safe. As Blair stammered, huffed and shifted in his seat, Stewart concluded that: “19 people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough, to make the world safe enough, that 19 people wouldn't want to do harm to us. So it seems like we have to rethink a strategy that is less military-based.” This was Stewart at his best; it's also fair to say that some of the interviews, generally those with actors and authors, seem like mere puffery, a point with which Stewart agrees (he embraces criticism as eagerly as he deflects compliments).

How often does he really connect with his interviewees? “Have you seen the show? Mostly, I'm not even listening. But I can bullshit anyone for six minutes.”

When we meet in October, I ask if he is thinking of leaving The Daily Show because he seems increasingly, well, bored, making frequent references to the fact he's been doing the show “for 75, 80, 1,000 years”.

He bats away my question with a joke: “Are you offering me a job?”

Well, I might be able to get you Guardian work experience.

“Aww, I'm too shitty a writer for that.”

But he doesn't reject the idea entirely (of leaving The Daily Show, that is. I think The Guardian will have to wait): “[If I left the show,] I would do what I'm doing. Whether it's standup, the show, books or films, I consider all this just different vehicles to continue a conversation about what it means to be a democratic nation, and to have it written into the constitution that all men are created equal – but to live with that for 100 years with slaves. How do those contradictions play themselves out? And how do we honestly assess our failings and move forward with integrity?”

When I catch up with him again, I ask if he knew he'd be leaving when we had that conversation.

“No, no – but some of it had been in the back of my head for quite some time. But you don't want to make any kind of decision when you're in the crucible of the process, just like you don't decide whether you're going to continue to run marathons in mile 24,” he says.

He switches to a chewy exaggeration of his native Noo Joi-zy accent, deflating his seriousness with a comedy voice. “You wait until you're done, you have a nice cup o' water, you put the blanket on, you sit and then you decide.”

- Jon Stewart: why I quit The Daily Show,, April 18, 2015.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



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