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A “baker’s dozen” and some idioms about food

I decided to write this post, because I have an idea about the origin of the idiom baker’s dozen, and ideas occur so seldom that I did not want this opportunity to be wasted. Perhaps our readers will find my suggestion reasonable or refute it. I’ll be pleased to hear from them. Also, since a baker’s dozen presupposes an extra loaf, I too decided to add more food idioms.

This is what Walter W. Skeat wrote in 1862, many years before he began work on his great English etymological dictionary:

“I do not know if the following passage in the Liber Albus [The White Book of the City of London by John Carpenter, a compilation of laws, ordinances, and regulations related to the City of London, 1492] has been noticed. It occurs on p. 232 of the translation by Mr. [Henry T.] Riley: ‘And that no baker of the town shall give unto the regratresses [female retailers] the six pence on Monday morning by way of Hansel-money [gift], or the three pence on Friday of curtsey-money; but, after the ancient manner, let him give thirteen articles of bread for twelve’. That is, the retailers of bread from house to house were allowed a thirteenth loaf by the baker, as a payment for their trouble.”

As Skeat explained later, to give (offer) thirteen to the dozen “to offer a reward for a deal or for one’s pain” may have originated in bakers’ trade. I find Skeat’s idea eminently reasonable.

John Carpenter (a. 1372-1442). (Image by B. Darling, MISM, City of London School)

The other explanations of the idiom appear in numerous books and on the Internet. The most popular of them states that bakers were severely punished for selling short weight and preferred to give their customers an extra loaf, to be on the safe side. I have not been able to find what documents confirm this explanation. It goes back to Riley’s commentary (see the quotation in the OED’s Second Edition), which was repeated by E. Cobham Brewer, the author of the most widely used book of English words and phrases. Unfortunately, the authors of popular books (and this also holds for Brewer) never give references to their sources, and therefore I suspect that they copy from one another. Multiple repetition acquires the status of common knowledge.

The phrase the printer’s dozen also existed and has been cited as the model for baker’s dozen. In the early days of publishing, it was the custom of printers to supply the retailer with thirteen copies of a book on each order of twelve. Assuming that this custom existed (a custom reminiscent of the one Skeat mentioned!), is it known that the phrase printer’s dozen antedates baker’s dozen? Has the interaction between those phrases been traced? Finally, we are told that the bakers of the medieval period had such a bad name that the words baker and devil were sometimes used interchangeably. The three explanations quoted above can be found in the book by William and May Morris Word and Phrase Origins (a moderately reliable work). Did bakers really have a proverbially bad name? Are we back at the first of the three hypotheses?

Yet I think that the confusion of baker and Devil can indeed be documented. In the post published on May 20, 2020, I discussed the phrase pull Devil, pull baker. This phrase goes back to a puppet show that was known as far back as the days of Shakespeare. According to the OED, baker’s dozen first occurred in print in 1596, that is, also in the Elizabethan period, and here comes my idea. Some Germanic and Romance languages have no special name for thirteen, while others have. When such a name exists, the reference is always to things gone wrong or to some devilry. The phrase Devil’s dozen must have been well-known because it also reached Russian (chertova diuzhina), while baker’s dozen is, to the best of my knowledge, uniquely English. Judging by the puppet show, the Devil and the baker were a familiar couple. Is it possible that baker’s dozen is a facetious alteration of the older variant Devil’s dozen (under the influence of both the show and the old custom, referred to by Skeat)? The new idiom lost the alliteration (d ~ d) but appealed to people’s sense of humor.

Angels on horseback. (Image by Food Stories)

And now, as promised, a few food idioms for dessert. Angels on horseback: “oysters rolled in bacon and served on toast.” The phrase also occurred (rarely) “as a species of mock-heroic commendation.” In Winchester, that is, in Winchester College, it denoted excellence (1898-1899). The phrase and especially the dish never lost their popularity. Brass knockers: “the next day remains of a dinner party.” According to some knowledgeable people, this was a folk-etymological alteration of Hindustani basi “cold” and khana “food, dinner” (1878). Bubble and squeak: “fried beef and cabbages.” According to a cook who was asked about the phrase, the dish ought to be made of boiled beef and cabbage fried, and she supposed it acquired that name from the ingredients in the first instance bubbling in the pot, and afterwards squeaking in the pan. My authority is The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1790, but the OED has a 1762 citation. Wikipedia gives a somewhat different explanation of the idiom, but, regardless of etymological niceties, the dish is still widely known.

Bubble and squeak. (Image by Indiana Public Media)

Sunday side: “the undercut of a sirloin of beef.” The phrase was very common around the 1880s, probably owing to Thackeray’s allusion to it. (Today, it is hard for us, who at best know only Vanity Fair, to imagine Thackeray’s popularity during his lifetime.) The application of the term to this part of the joint is, as a correspondent, whose 1903 note I am quoting, says, unmistakable. In small families, where economy was desirable, the joint was roasted for Sunday, and the undercut eaten hot on that day—the other side being cold meat for the rest of the week. By leaving the “weak side” uncarved when hot, it was rendered more juicy and palatable as a cold collation. The OED has Sunday joint (1844) and Sunday roast (1826), but, apparently, no Sunday side. Tea and turn-out: “a light meal after which one was expected to leave the table.” In this phrase, turn-out means “leave.” The old-fashioned people were reluctant to reconcile themselves to the afternoon tea, a habit that replaced a more substantial meal, and the phrase contained a note of disapproval. Such was the commentary in 1911. The OED found this phrase as early as 1806!

We have the expression meat and potatoes man: “an unpretentious man of simple habits.” Three centuries ago, a fiddler who played at local events and dined on leftovers was called a rump and kidney man. Another archaic phrase is more pleasant. Rump and dozen refers to a good dinner: a steak and twelve oysters or perhaps a dozen bottles of wine (a regular, not a baker’s dozen). And one more idiom along the same lines. Cry roast meat meant “to be foolish enough to proclaim one’s success.” I have been unable to find the idiom’s origin. Was roast meat such a luxury (see what is said above about Sunday side!) that someone who could partake of it was advised to do so in secret, in order not to arouse the neighbors’ envy? Rather curious is the alliterative taunt cowardly, cowardly custard. I am aware of only one suggestion: the phrase allegedly has its origin “in the shaking, quivering motion of the confection called custard.” What can I offer you by way of apology for this post? Adam’s ale? Alas, it means “water.” After meat—mustard? This is said about something that comes too late. I’d rather refrain from apologizing and let you enjoy my Wednesday joint.



Feature image by Zane Selvans

Recent Comments

  1. Lionel Burman

    In the 14th century the Commune of Siena laid don rules for the sale of pottery vessels, certain scudi had to be sold in 13s, but charged as 12. (I quote from memory, having lost the source)

  2. Gavin Wraith

    Your reference to my old school prompts me to remark that ‘baker’ there meant a cushion. According to Winchester Notions by Charles Stevens, ISBN 0-485-12138 7, the word was originally ‘banker’, according to rolls of 1410. The figure on the left in the cover picture was me, aged 12. For earlier notions see Winchester College Notions – Vol. I by Three Beetleites, first edition 1901, printed by The South Bucks Standard Printing Co., Ltd, High Wycombe.

  3. Celia Nyamweru

    Question not directly related: origin of ‘I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’? Back to the old penal codes?

  4. Celia Nyamweru

    And a favourite expression of my mother’s was ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’. Sheep idioms?

  5. Mr Barry Sesnan

    If you are going to steal something / risk something go big as the penalty is the same.

  6. Fred de Vries

    In The Netherlands we have the saying ‘dertien in een dozijn’) which translates as ‘thirteen in a dozen’. It means something of somebody of hardly any or no value at all.

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