Back and front yards and seats

Why are backyard and backseat single words while front yard and front seat are two? It seems exceedingly strange to me.


How do dictionaries handle ‘back’ words and ‘front’ words?

Consider the set of fused nouns listed in Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) that start with back—words that are rendered as closed-up (nonhyphenated) single words:

backache, backbeat, backbench[er], backbiter, backblock, backboard, backbone, backbreaker, backchat, backcloth, backcountry, backcourt, backcross, backdrop, backfield, backfill, backfire, backfit, backflip, backflow, background[er], backhand, backhoe, backhouse, backlash, backlight, backlist, backlog, backpack[er], backrest, backsaw, backscatter, backseat, backset, backside, backslap[per], backslash, backslide[r], backspace, backspin, backsplash, backstabber, backstay, backstitch, backstop, backstory, backstreet, backstretch, backstroke[r], backswimmer, backswing, backsword, backup, backwash, backwater, backwoods, backwrap, backyard

All of the words in this list are instantly recognizable combinations of back plus another extant word. Now consider the set of fused nouns in the Eleventh Collegiate that start with front and (again) yield closed-up (nonhyphenated) single words:

frontcourt, frontispiece

Frontispiece is a bit of an oddball here because, according to Merriam-Webster, it came into English (via Middle French) from Late Latin frontispicium (“facade”) already a single fused word. Nevertheless, it has some characteristics of a fused word pair, and frontcourt looks lonely by itself.

The Eleventh Collegiate also lists a few hyphenated nouns that may eventually lose their hyphen and become fused single words. Here are the ones that begin with back-:

back-checker, back-formation

And here is the one that begins with front-:


Finally, some nouns consist of two separate words but have a sufficiently distinctive meaning that the Eleventh Collegiate includes entries for them. These have back as their first element:

back bacon, back burner, back channel, back dive, back judge, back matter, back mutation, back order, back room, back talk

(Note that this list excludes noun terms such as back door, back end, back office, and back stage that the dictionary excludes on grounds that the two words together don’t connote anything special that one wouldn’t surmise from adding the meanings of the two individual words together.)

And here are the two-word nouns beginning with front that have entries in the Eleventh Collegiate:

front bench, front burner, front dive, front end, front line, front man, front matter, front money, front office, front room

Conspicuously absent from these lists are both front terms that the poster asks about: front seat and front yard. But the overall list of inconsistencies between front words and back words is somewhat larger. Here are the pairs that receive inconsistent treatment in the dictionary:

backbench and front bench; back end [not listed] and front end; backlist and front list [not listed]; back line [not listed] and front line; back office [not listed] and front office; backseat and front seat [not listed]; backyard and front yard [not listed]

There are also undoubtedly many pairs (such as back end and front end) both of whose terms are excluded—but in those cases, we can assume that Merriam-Webster views both terms as being composed of separate words.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) often agrees with the spelling and entry choices in Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, but not always. These noun terms appear in the Fifth AHDEL but not in the Eleventh Collegiate:

backchecker, backdoor, back end, backhaul, back nine, back office, backpressure, backpropagation, backrush, backshore, frontlist, front nine, front yard

These noun terms appear in the Eleventh Collegiate but not in the Fifth AHDEL:

back bacon, back burner, backblock, backcloth, backfit, backhouse, back judge, back order, backstreet, backwrap, front burner, front dive

And these noun terms receive different treatment in the two dictionaries:

backchannel [AHDEL] vs. back channel [MW]; backformation or back formation [AHDEL] vs. back-formation [MW]; backroom or back room [AHDEL] vs. back room [MW]; back seat [AHDEL] vs. backseat [MW]; backyard also back yard [AHDEL] vs. backyard [MW]; frontline also front line [AHDEL] vs. front line [MW]; frontman also front man [AHDEL] vs. front man [MW]; frontrunner [AHDEL] vs. front-runner [MW]

Why the inconsistent treatment?

The first thing to observe is that, whereas Merriam-Webster inconsistently endorses backseat and backyard and (by omission) front seat and front yard, American Heritage does not. The Fifth AHDEL mentions back seat, backyard also back yard, and front yard, and (by omission) it endorses front seat. So it is quite possible to follow AHDEL style and use word pairs that are not inconsistent (back seat/front seat and back yard/front yard).

As for the larger question of why inconsistencies such as backbench vs. front bench crop up (in both dictionaries), I suspect that the much larger number of closed-up back words (in comparison to closed-up front words) influences writers’ readiness to render other noun terms starting with that word as fused words rather than as hyphenated forms or open two-word terms.

Note that some back words are counterparts not of front words but of fore words (virtually all of which are unhyphenated single words, since fore- is a true prefix)—for example, forechecker/back-checker, foreground/background, and forehand/backhand—and others of which seem to be using back as a short form of backward, as in backflip, backflow, backstroke, and backwash.

Whatever the reason, the number of fused back words is much larger than the number of fused front words, which makes the temptation to close up previously separated two-word terms such as backchannel, backformation, and backroom much stronger than the tendency to close up previously separated two-word terms such as frontman. The latter still happens (as the Fifth AHDEL makes clear) but it happens less often than the former.

Viewed in this larger context, backseat and backyard versus front seat and front yard are part of a pattern of orthography in which back word pairs are far more likely to be fused than front word pairs are.

Source : Link , Question Author : Suzie NYC , Answer Author : Sven Yargs

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