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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.

Long chalk

Not bloody likely.

Dear Word Detective:  In books written by English authors, I have come across the phrase “not by a long chalk.”  This seems to mean the same thing as the American “not by a long shot.”  My son thinks this may have something to do with cannon shots, while I’m trying to factor in the old racing tote boards in English betting parlors with odds posted in chalk on high and wide boards. Probably the correct answer is “None of the above.” Help! — Alix G Benson.

Well, you never know.  It might well be “all of the above.”  According to the theory of “overdetermination,” developed by Freud to explain dreams but applied to the social realm by “Loopy Louie” Althusser and others, things don’t always happen for a single reason, but for a whole bunch of reasons, any one of which would have sufficed on its own.  The universe, in other words, is really into overkill, and this makes it very hard to figure out exactly why something happens.  Personally, I have resolved this contradiction by living in rural Ohio, where absolutely nothing ever happens.

Your hunch that “not by a long chalk,”meaning “not even by a remote chance” or “not even close” (“The big fight between inflation and deflation hasn’t been won yet, not by a long chalk,” MoneyWeek, 9/09), refers to chalk marks on a board is right on the money.  The board was most likely in a pub (where scores in darts, for instance, would be tallied) and a “long chalk” was a high score (a long series of chalk strokes), a daunting and thus unlikely obstacle for an opponent to overcome.  To say that the economy, for instance, has not yet rebounded “by a long chalk” is to say that there are huge obstacles to reaching that goal and success is far from certain.

Although “not by a long chalk” is most popular in Britain, it’s not entirely unknown here in the US, and the earliest citation for the phrase in the Dictionary of American Regional English is only slightly more recent than the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But Americans are far likelier to be familiar with “not by a long shot,” used in the same sense of “don’t hold your breath.”  The term “long shot” has been used since the late 18th century to mean a shot taken with a cannon or small arms from a great distance and unlikely to hit its target.  By the mid-19th century, “long shot” was being applied to anything, from race horses to election bids, unlikely to succeed (“A few long-shot winners at the New Orleans race-track,” O. Henry, 1906).

The interesting thing about “not by a long shot” is that it doesn’t really match the “behind in the score” sense of “not by a long chalk.”  Instead it seems to invoke the great distance and difficulty (and consequent unlikelihood of success) of a “long shot,” which is a bit different in sense.  Or maybe I just drink too much coffee.

One intriguing possibility is that “not by a long shot” is actually the relic of a mistake.  A discussion on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society a few years ago suggested that “not by a long shot” in the US actually arose through a mis-hearing of “not by a long chalk.”  Since “long shot” meaning “remote chance” was already a popular idiom in the US, and pub tally boards were not familiar, it would have been natural to substitute “shot” for “chalk.”