I understand the meaning of the term "back-order": The item is not available, and will be ordered when it becomes available again. But I can't quite figure out why the prefix "back-" is used, when in other words it means either literally "behind", "reverse", or the anatomical "back".

When I break it into its components, "back-order" should mean "to cancel an order", and the original term would make more sense as "pre-order" or "ready-order".

Is there a reason "back-" made sense in the 1800s, or am I missing a reason that it makes sense even today?

  • ...backed-up (like a sink or a freeway) makes perfect sense to me. : ) – ipso Dec 4 '13 at 23:03

etymology online lists "back-date, by 1881 (implied in back-dated), from back (adv.) + date (v.1)

likewise, back up (v.) 1767, "stand behind and support," The noun meaning "standby, reserve" is recorded from 1952, and "back-log": arrears of unfulfilled orders" (1932)

so, back-order evolved in the eighties as shipping demands for products increased, causing shortfalls, and wanting to keep the customer's business, the company thus "back ordered" instead of simply declining to fill an order, saying an item was unavailable.


"back-order" was not a term used in the 1800s. Looking at Google's ngram, it was more heavily used in the 1970s and on.

Over time, words can inherit meanings that seem counter-intuitive when you think about it. Words that come from idiomatic phrases are very hard to investigate past when people started using it. It's most likely started being used because in 1970s commercialization is was entirely common for people to come to a store looking for something in particular and it be out of stock temporarily. Knowing this, people would often (and some still do) ask if they happen to have any more "in the back". This is less common now as front-of-store inventories have grown larger over the decades thanks to super stores like Wal-Mart and the likes, but the origin of the word likely has to do with distinguishing the back of store (or warehouse) from front of store communicating those two terms as separate entities in a way. Imagine:

We don't have it up front, but I know the guys in the back have it on order

And then evolving into this shorthand:

It's on back-order


I understand the meaning of the term "back-order": The item is not available, and will be ordered when it becomes available again.

Although your definition is close, it is not what a back-order is strictly defined as. Merriam-Webster's definition is:

A product that has been ordered but not sent to the customer because it is not yet available.

Also, the first known usage according to the same source is ca 1929.

So, the important distinguishing to make is the fact that the order has already been made when you're describing a back-order. The back- component can be approached in interpretation in a multitude of ways:

  • The provider will "get back" to the customer/purchaser when the product is available.
  • The order is placed on the back of the list of orders to be processed until the product is available.

I was unable to find any sources that discuss the origin and/or development of the term, however.

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