Etymology Usage

Can three things be back to back?

Q: I bristle at the use of “back to back” for more than two things: “I’ve had over a dozen appointments today, all back to back.” Have you blessed this construction?

A: Some old familiar idioms lose their literal meaning over the years. This is the case with “back to back.”

In modern usage, this phrase is often used to describe not only physical objects alongside each other, but also events that come one after another.

As we all know, events come in threes and fours as well as twos, while logic would require that only two things can be “back to back.”

Besides, events don’t really have fronts and backs. And even if they did, they’d follow one another “front to back,” not “back to back.”

The point is that the phrase “back to back” has broken the bounds of logic.

There are several literal examples in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase used adverbially, including this one from a ballad version of Robin Hood (circa 1500): “And there they turnd them back to back.”

The OED’s earliest examples of the phrase used adjectivally (and hyphenated) are in 19th-century writings about houses. In those days, the phrase was meant literally.

The first quotation is from Dr. Lyon Playfair’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Large Towns in Lancashire (1845): “Back-to-back houses cannot be considered dwellings of proper construction.”

A century later, the phrase was used literally to describe paired fireplaces. This OED citation is from the sociologist Dennis Chapman’s The Home and Social Status (1954):

“The other living-room usually has a ‘back-to-back’ combination fireplace ‘shared’ with the kitchen.”

But when used to describe events, the OED says, the phrase means “following one upon another without a break, consecutive.” And by extension, it also means “full, crowded.”

The use of “back to back” for events is “chiefly” American, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a sports story that appeared in the New York Times on August 24, 1952:

“Back to back doubles by Gene Woodling and Joe Collins off Early Wynn in the fourth inning produced the only tally of the day.” (The Yankees beat the Indians, 1-0.)

And here’s an example of the phrase used in the sense of “crowded.” It’s from Lady Bird Johnson’s A White House Diary (1970): “Today was one of those full, back-to-back Washington days.”

Have we, you ask, blessed such constructions? We think the nonliteral use of “back to back” is now firmly established in English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adverbial “back to back” as an idiom meaning “consecutively and without interruption: presented three speeches back to back.”

The dictionary defines the adjectival “back-to-back” as meaning “consecutive; successive: back-to-back performances; back-to-back home runs.”

American Heritage doesn’t even bother with the literal meaning. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives two definitions: (1) “facing in opposite directions and often touching,” and (2) “coming one after the other: consecutive.”

Apparently the only problem with this usage is what to do about the hyphens. Our advice is to use hyphens only when the phrase is used adjectivally before a noun (“back-to-back doubles”). Otherwise, drop the hyphens.

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