The words back and water have been used and recorded together since medieval times, and are so familiar they have long been understood as metaphoric for a small town, a place far from the centers of population, culture, and commerce. In geological or geographical terms, backwater means water held behind a dam or other barrier. Backwater is the still or slow water of a stream spread by an obstacle, such as a rock. It is also water at the edge of a river pool held back by the force of the mainstream current, often drifting slowly upstream in an eddy littered with foam and floating debris. Along the coast, backwater can refer to connected lagoons. And in Mississippi River parlance of the nineteenth century, the word meant the swell thrown back by the paddles of a steamboat, as well as the eddies the steamboat pilot sought out to help push his craft upriver.

Robert Morgan