The hits just keep on coming.
Dear Word Detective: What is the provenance of the expression “back-to-back” (with or without hyphens)? It is used to mean “consecutive,” which it has nearly driven from the popular lexicon; the sports world would be crippled without it and its incomprehensible derivative back-to-back-to-back (a “three-peat”). The problem is that the image makes no sense. Surely any consecutive ordering of things with backs and fronts would be front-to-back or back-to-front. What genius of gibberish is responsible for this? — Joe.
That’s a darn good question. I don’t know who’s responsible for propagating “back-to-back,” but, as you point out, the phrase actually makes no sense at all. As a matter of fact, the mental image I get when I consider the term literally is of two men, standing back-to-back up against each other, who are about to march ten paces forward, spin around, and engage in a duel. Considering that at least one of them is very unlikely to emerge from this contest in any shape to repeat the ordeal, “back-to-back” seems an especially bad synonym for “consecutive.”
By the way, you get extra points (which can, if you amass enough, be exchanged for a free cat) for using the fine word “provenance,” which means “origin or source” (from the Latin “provenire,” to come forth), as well as “history of ownership or development.”
The use of “back-to-back” to mean “events following one another without an interval between” or simply “consecutive” is apparently an American invention. The earliest print citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1952, but it is certainly older and some sources believe it first appeared in print around 1900. It seems to have first appeared in coverage of baseball games in the sports pages of newspapers of the day, and, as you say, it remains a mainstay of sports reporting today. Of the nearly 25,000 hits for “back to back” on Google News as I write this, at least ninety percent are from sports coverage, used either in the context of games in a tournament played immediately one after another, or with regard to an individual or team record (“The team’s back to back defeats in July stunned Mets fans”).
“Back to back” used in the literal sense is much older than the weird sports sense, the most well-known example being the “back-to-back” style of low-income urban housing common, especially in Britain, up through the 19th century. Houses built on one street shared a back wall with one facing the next street over, and usually shared side walls with the houses next door. It’s possible this “jammed together” style of housing contributed to the use of “back-to-back” to mean “one game right after another” in baseball, which then percolated into general usage meaning “consecutive.”
As for why such an illogical phrase has persisted, I think there are two reasons. The alliterative rhythm of “back-to-back” is appealing in the same way “rock and roll” and “spic and span” are. Secondly, once a phrase is fixed in the public’s mind, good luck getting it out, even if it makes absolutely no sense. For example, we say that we fall “head over heels” in love, meaning that we’re figuratively turned upside down by the experience. But most of us already spend all day long with our head above, “over,” our heels. Back in the 14th century, the phrase was actually “heels over head,” but in the 1800s, a few writers (one of whom was Davy Crockett) got the phrase backwards, and from then on it was “head over heels.”