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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.”


No, I might need that someday.  That too.

Dear Word Detective:  I was writing an email today, and used the phrase “cull out.”  Not being sure whether it is used in a positive sense (e.g., “we culled out the interesting documents from the load of old useless invoices”) or a negative one (e.g., “we culled out all the old useless invoices and only left the interesting documents”), I of course checked it online.  The dictionary results seemed to indicate the first option — the Free Dictionary definition is “select desirable parts from a group or list,” with the example “cull out the interesting letters from the poet’s correspondence” — which is how I used it in my email. But when I dug a little deeper later I found many uses in the second way (one good example of many in Google News: “The filters on our computers and systems work overtime to cull out spam”). So now I am confused. Which is correct? Did this phrase start its life in one meaning and then change to mean the opposite, or have I been misled by a free online dictionary? — Yael in Jerusalem.

“Cull” is an ambiguous little word, and the conflict between the sources you cite doesn’t mean either of them is wrong.  As the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Incidentally, “culling,” or the failure to do so, seems to be the topic of the moment here in the US.  The A&E network is carrying a show called “Hoarders,” exploring the cases of dysfunctional packrats who fill their houses with staggering piles of what they wistfully  call “stuff” but the rest of us would consider utterly useless junk.  And the author E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, World’s Fair) has just released a novel based on the story of the Collyer brothers, two wealthy New York City recluses who set the standard for clutter, eventually amassing over 100 tons of rubbish in their Fifth Avenue brownstone.  A quick Google of “Collyer brothers” will illustrate just how far off the rails these guys went, but the phrase “ten grand pianos” pretty much sums it up.

The problem with “to cull” is that in its most basic sense it simply means “to pick out.”  In its earliest uses in English after its appearance in the 14th century, the sense was most often of selecting the best (“To cull out of all the people, those which had best courage,” 1593).  But by the early 18th century, “cull” was being used to mean simply “to subject to the process of selection,” whether to “weed out” the clearly substandard or unwanted, or to skim the “cream of the crop” and dump the rest.  The root of “cull,” incidentally, was the Old French “cuillir,” meaning “to gather, select,” itself derived from the Latin “colligere,” to gather (which also gave us the verb “to collect”).

In standard usage today, there seems to be a slight general tilt toward the use of “cull” to mean “remove and discard the unwanted,” but it’s really a word that can only be judged in context.  After all, the basic process of “culling” is simply one of selection, and doesn’t govern what is done with the things selected.  On the other hand, if you overhear someone from the Human Resources department at your job joking about “culling the herd,” it’s unlikely they’re selecting people to receive cupcakes, and it might be time to tune up your resume.


Speaking of weirdos.

Dear Word Detective:  This afternoon, while a couple of my friends and I were waiting around before a choir rehearsal, trying to remember the steps to a Baroque dance we had learned this summer, somebody sat down at the piano and started playing a piece by Kabalevsky which we supposed was a gymnopedie.  We began speculating on the origins of “gymnopedie,” which seemed like a funny thing to call a quiet piece of music.  The best we could guess was that it had something to do with “gymnos,” which is Greek for “unclothed,” but we couldn’t imagine what.  Please enlighten some etymologically puzzled musicians.– Elizabeth  Lightwood.

Good question, and thanks for the opportunity to add “gymnopedie” to my spell checker’s dictionary.  And “Kabalevsky,” of course, which for some reason it wants to change to my choice of “Lobachevsky” or “Dostoevsky.”  Typical.  I notice it’s not throwing a fit over “Madonna” or  “The Beatles.”  I guess I should give it credit for recognizing Lobachevsky, but that’s probably just because it was programmed by math weirdos.  Huh.  It seems to like “weirdo.”  I rest my case.

Steinlein-chatnoirSpeaking of omissions, I was mildly surprised that you asked a question about “gymnopedie” and didn’t mention the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).  As musicians, you and your friends are doubtlessly acquainted with Satie’s three “Gymnopedies,” quiet and impressionistic solo piano pieces published beginning in 1888 and probably Satie’s best-known works.  What I guess is less well-known is that Satie seems to have invented the term “gymnopedie” himself.  But it’s not entirely clear what he meant by it.  There have been, in fact, scholarly papers written debating exactly how Satie came up with the word.

Satie was, by all accounts, a strange but clever duck.  A famous anecdote, probably at least partly apocryphal, recounts the aspiring composer’s first visit, in 1887, to Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) nightclub, at that time the epicenter of the Paris musical scene.  According to the story, Satie, lacking any artistic reputation at that point, arranged for his arrival to be announced by a friend with the words “Erik Satie, gymnopediste.”  Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir’s formidable proprietor, is said to have been temporarily taken aback, finally responding, “That’s quite an occupation.”

Satie’s purported occupation was indeed impressive.  The “Gymnopaedia” were dances performed at festivals in Ancient Greece by young men bereft, for the occasion, of clothing (“gymnos,” naked, plus “pais,” youth).  That’s the same “gymnos,” by the way, that gave us “gymnasium,” after the Ancient Greek habit of exercising in the buff.

Satie picked the word to impress the crowd, which it certainly did, but what, if anything, he meant by it is a mystery.  Satie’s friend Contamine de Latour had recently used the term “Gymnopaedia” in a poem Satie would likely have read, and any musical scholar would have been familiar with the ancient dances.  Most likely, Satie simply chose the term for its absurdity and risque overtones.

Taken with his own invention, and perhaps pushing the shtick a bit, the following year Satie published the first of his three “Gymnopedies,” the piano pieces which brought him the fame he craved and remain immensely popular today.  Incidentally, a nice video from ABC Classics which uses Gymnopedie No. 1 as its score can be found by searching YouTube for “The Colours of Autumn – Gymnopedie No.1″ or just click here