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'?

  • Hunch: The idea of two people fighting back to back. Interesting question, though.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 1:52
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 3:11

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 1
    Yes but when back-to-back-to-back is used, I can't help but cringe, since this is anatomically impossible.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 20:01

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.

  • According to the Word Detective, this style of housing (my wife once owned such a house) dates back well into the 19th Century (no, neither my wife nor I do). One assumes that the usage dates back nearly this long. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:18

My understanding of the term is it originates from the changing of one’s horse to a fresh mount directly without a break for the rider.

  • Please consider adding a citation to a reference work that corroborates your understanding of the source of this idiom.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 3:10

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