Q&A: Why is 13 a baker’s dozen?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re checking out maths skills at the bakery…

Q: Hey AWC, why is “a baker's dozen” actually 13? Are bakers just terrible at maths?

A: Haha, no. This one actually goes back many centuries.

Q: How many?

A: Well, fewer than a baker's dozen, but still a lot.

Q: Just tell me please.

A: It was first recorded in writing during the early 1600s, but the tradition of giving out 13 loaves of bread instead of 12 goes back a few more hundred years.

Q: But why?

A: Dough you really knead to know?

Q: Yes. And that was terrible.

A: Thanks. Well there are two main theories. The first involves avoiding persecution. You see, due to the price of wheat during the Middle Ages, bread was a heavily regulated thing – literally. The authorities didn't look kindly on bakers who sold bread with a high air content.

Q: Like the modern day problem of chip packets full of air?

A: Sure. So, anyway, bakers came under scrutiny by having every dozen loaves weighed. Worried that natural variances would send them to jail, bakers safeguarded their samples by throwing in an extra loaf to ensure they were over the required weight. The extra loaves they added in were known as “in breads”.

Q: Oh, like the cousins my family doesn't talk about? Wait, no that's something else. Carry on.

A: Theory number two – and considered more likely – relates to profits.

Q: Like Muhammad or Jesus?

A: No, not prophets. We're talking about the money retailers made from selling their bread. Keep up.

Q: Oh, the extra dough.

A: Ha, well that's very apt – because that extra 13th loaf WAS the profit. The retailer would pay the baker for 12, be given 13 – a “baker's dozen” – and that extra loaf was all the profit they made.

Q: So they were selling the loaves for the same price that they bought them? That's silly business sense.

A: Business mentors were scarce in the 1500s. And remember, this was that same heavily regulated time. Small margins.

Q: Did anyone else have extras in their dozens? Butchers? Fishmongers? Fruit sellers? Cheese… I want to say mongers again.

A: Yes, “cheesemonger” is correct – “monger” means dealer, from the Latin “mango”.

Q: Oh, I think the fruit guy would have been selling mangos, not the cheesemonger.

A: Can we just answer your original question please?

Q: Yes, of course.

A: The “13 for 12” thing was in fact just for the bakers. And it's a quirk that has lasted at least in idiomatic form until today – even if the tradition of throwing in an extra loaf or roll is not universal anymore.

Q: And they seem to have figured out their mark ups too. I bought a loaf of gluten free, leavened, miche-inspired, soy-infused, yeast-identifying, macadamia-crusted soda sourdough brioche the other day. It was $14.

A: Very tasty though, we're sure.

Q: Best thing since sliced bread…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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