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Presumably items would follow each other back to front?

There is such a thing as 'back to back' agreements; for example when you have an agreement with a bank to fund a purchase but contingent on (or following) the sale of another.

Could this be it I wonder, as in 'one follows the other'?

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Hunch: The idea of two people fighting back to back. Interesting question, though. –  MrHen Jul 14 '11 at 1:52
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Perhaps it did originate from fighting back to back. Fighting back to back infers closeness, at least in the camaraderie sense. Also, you would have to be closely following (paying attention to) your fighting partner to remain back to back for any length of time during a fight. A bit of a stretch maybe. –  Brendon Jul 14 '11 at 3:11
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2 Answers

Back-to-front suggests a single item that is the wrong way around or has been reversed, like a shirt with the buttons at the back, or holding a map up the wrong way.

Back-to-back suggests two things touching each other, and unlike in back-to-back housing, the orientation doesn't necessarily matter, especially for abstract terms like agreements and arrangements (in this context).


The phrase "back-to-back agreements" appears to have become prevalent in the early 1970s, but the earliest I found is from this 1956 Petroleum Week:

The other customer-supplier has a "back to back" agreement with Commerce.

However, "back-to-back arrangements" is also synonymously, and also has a slightly older meaning. Here's the 1906 Mineral Resources of the United States

The washing apparatus consisted of a trommel for taking out the coarse material, from which the fines went to two tables with back-to-back arrangements fitted with riffles and mats.

And from a 1933 United States Patents Quarterly:

It is, in effect, only supplying two devices from a common battery, and it was common to do that in these back-to-back arrangements and in carbon buttons for the purpose of getting added sensitivity.

This suggests a similar meaning of next to each other rather than a literal rear-to-rear.

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Some houses are built back-to-back, where the back wall of one house is also the back wall of the other. Typically the entire street is like this, so each individual house just has a front of its own, sharing the back and sides with other houses.

Perhaps the general term back-to-back, for a series of things in close succession, comes from these crammed-together dwellings.

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