Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue – Day Ten

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the Coronavirus crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored…..

Baker’s Dozen

The book defines this as “fourteen, that number of rolls being allowed to the purchasers of a dozen”. This is instantly intriguing because of the fourteen rather than thirteen and usually I’ll tell myself that I need to get out more, but under the current climate, that isn’t happening.

The meaning of the phrase dates back to when bakers were under a legal duty, and wanted to avoid local humiliation of being put in the stocks or worse, to ensure that they sold the right weight of bread. So, it was easier to add something extra to ensure compliance, so when selling in a larger volume to wholesalers they’d put extra bread or rolls in. Buyers of something smaller would usually be given an extra piece of bread as well, along the same principle.

So the thirteen and fourteen are both logical, bakers would put one or two extra loaves in depending on their experience at ensuring that they were compliant. It appears that during the nineteenth century the Baker’s Dozen started to be defined more as thirteen rather than fourteen, perhaps for reasons of economy. But, it’s an interesting evolution of the phrase and how meaning can shift over time.