The Grammarphobia Blog

Front-seat driving

Q: Much of my light reading is detective stories, and the sleuths are often driving from place to place. It has always bothered me that when describing car seats, the front is always “front seat,” which makes sense to me, but the back is always one word: “backseat.” Why?

A: I also enjoy a detective story once in a while, and your question gives me a chance to do some detecting of my own

First, why do some noun phrases (like “front seat”) remain separate words while others (like “back seat”) eventually get mushed together?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but what usually happens is that the most common of these phrases are first hyphenated (“back-seat”) and then joined into one word (“backseat”). This process is gradual and may take dozens of years or more.

In fact, the process is still going on with “backseat,” according to the two US dictionaries I consult the most.

Although Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it as one word, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has it as two words.

Neither dictionary has a separate entry for “front seat,” suggesting that this term is much less common than “backseat,” whether one word or two.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for both “front seat” and “back seat” going back to the early 19th century, when the seats were usually in vehicles powered by real horses. All of its citations are either two words or hyphenated.

The earliest reference for “back seat” is this 1834 quotation from the writings of the American humorist Robert C. Sands: “He had … ample room wherein to adjust himself and his properties, on the back-seat [of the coach].”

The earliest for “front seat” is an 1825 reference to the front seat of a gallery in a church. The next citation in the OED is from Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower’s 1883 memoir: “Le gros papa took up all the front seat of the carriage.”

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