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There's a "hot question" at the moment about the use of the apostrophe in the phrase Baker's Dozen, and it got me to wondering: where did this phrase originate?

Did bakers really offer 13 in a dozen? Is it a joke about bakers being bad at maths? If bakers did offer 13 in a dozen, then why did they start doing it?

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I thought the thirteenth one was for the baker. –  dashel May 29 at 10:16

5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Have you checked Wikipedia?

The oldest known source, but questionable explanation for the expression "baker's dozen" dates to the 13th century [...]. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers (some variations say that they would sell hollow bread) could be subject to severe punishment. To guard against the punishment of losing a hand to an axe, a baker would give 13 for the price of 12, to be certain of not being known as a cheat. [...]

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It's not just bakers, and it's not just a dozen. See Wikipedia on lagniappe, which also has a fascinating etymology. I don't think the custom needs an elaborate explanation. –  Peter Shor Apr 21 '12 at 11:00
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If you are talking about the 13th century or even the 16th then the packing of items on a tray or sheet is an anachronism. In these time and much later bread was baked on the oven floor and set with a peel. I doubt if the technology for steel trays was developed until the 18 century at the earliest. –  PurplePilot Apr 21 '12 at 12:44
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Like @PurplePilot said, the geometrical explanation is stuff and nonsense: not all baked items are round, and they didn't use rectangular baking pans until many centuries after the term 'baker's dozen' was first used. –  Marthaª Apr 30 '12 at 15:19
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And in fact the balderdash explanation has since been removed from Wikipedia, leaving just the accepted (although also doubtful) shortchanging explanation. –  Marthaª Apr 30 '12 at 16:14
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@Malvolio: the whole "they added an extra loaf as insurance against getting their hand cut off" premise sets off all my urban legend detectors, because it sounds like typical middle-ages-bashing ("Look how cruel and nasty they were! And they used a lot of spices to hide the taste of spoiled meat!" [1. Spices were several order of magnitude more expensive than meat, and 2. Spoiled meat would have made them just as physically ill as it would make us, no matter how the well the taste was disguised.]) –  Marthaª May 7 '12 at 14:48

On Oxford Dictionary we can read:

baker's dozen: a group of thirteen (= one more than a dozen, which is twelve)

Origin.
late 16th century: from the former bakers' custom of adding an extra loaf to a dozen sold, this constituting the retailer's profit.

More historical reasons are illustrated on Wikipedia with regard to "Worshipful Company of Bakers":

The Worshipful Company of Bakers is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. The Bakers' Guild is known to have existed in the twelfth century. From the Corporation of London, the Guild received the power to enforce regulations for baking, known as the Assize of Bread and Ale. The violations included selling short-weight bread and the addition of sand instead of flour. (So that they could avoid punishment for inadvertently selling a short-weight bread, bakers added a thirteenth loaf to a dozen, giving rise to the term baker's dozen.) The Bread Assize remained in force until 1863, when Parliament repealed it.

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As ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ explains:

In earlier times when a heavy penalty was inflicted for short weight, bakers used to give a surplus number of loaves, called the in-bread, to avoid all risk of incurring a fine. The 13th was the vantage loaf.

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Oh, I like that too: The "vantage loaf". It reminds me of Yahrzeit (Yarhzeit? no, Yahrzeit, I think) candles, though tangentially. They must have sufficient wax to burn continuously for a full 24 hours. I've noticed that they usually are good for at least 26, even 30 hours though, as I have used them during power outages, not just for commemoration of the dead. –  Feral Oink Apr 21 '12 at 11:41
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I suppose it should be spelt "Jahrzeit" –  Paola Apr 21 '12 at 23:13
    
"We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — 'lagniappe'." -- Mark Twain –  Malvolio Apr 23 '12 at 5:13

I understand this differently. From what I was taught, the baker's dozen resulted from compassion.

The extra item was added by the baker so the households slave/servant would be able to consume one of whatever was being purchased, while walking home with a bag full of food for their master/employer.

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I was always told this was the baker cooks 13 - 12 for the customer and one for himself. That way if the batch came out bad, he can easily find out and pitch it before it gets to the customer.

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