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What Does "Back Burner" Mean?

T. Carrier
T. Carrier

"Back burner" is a cooking phrase that may serve as an idiom in English sayings. In this context, the phrase means that something or someone has a low priority or level of importance in comparison to other things. As such, the item is in a state of waiting. Persons or tasks that are at the bottom of a checklist or a ranking system will thus typically be assigned "back burner" status.

Like most idiomatic expressions, this bit of lingo compares a real object or event with a symbolic action or object. The actual object in question is the top portion of an oven or other large cooking apparatus. The heating devices atop a cooking apparatus are known as burners, and most cooking techniques take place on the portions closest to the cook, or the front burners. The back burners, on the other hand, are generally reserved for objects that require only a low level of heat or attention. Food that needs to stay warm, for example, may be placed on the back burner.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Similarly, a person or a task may not be given a high priority. An employee of a large organization, for example, may have several tasks waiting and need to prioritize. Therefore, attending a meeting may gain the employee’s complete focus while answering an e-mail is moved down the list of essential tasks. The e-mail is thus placed on the "back burner," where it will remain in a state of waiting until it becomes important.

Examples are not limited to the professional world, as any choice which requires prioritizing can apply to this saying. If an individual must choose between taking a vacation or addressing a personal family matter, he or she may be forced to place the less-urgent vacation on the back burner. In turn, a sports coach may need to place a lower priority on either recruiting new talent or on purchasing needed equipment. The term may also be used in fictional works where main characters are assigned "front burner" roles while supporting characters remain in a "back burner" state.

Thus, in contrast to the back burner, something may be given an elevated importance or precedence. In these cases, the terminology used would be "on the front burner." These persons or situations are attended to first. Despite the ordering of items or situations, a "back burner" situation is not entirely neglected, but merely postponed. Details are just worked on occasionally rather than on a consistent basis.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books