Over on Politics.Meta.SE a comment by user Guest271314 asserts a repugnant etymology:

...You cannot expect readers to parse when you are engaging in direct communication or "colloquially" speaking. For example, "cheaper by the dozen" is a "colloquial" English term that actually refers to plantation owners forcing prisoners of war to impregnate their mother, resulting in a "dozen" "cheap" children with severe birth defects.
– guest271314 Jan 17 at 18:59

On the other hand, Google Ngram has nothing from the 19th century that remotely suggests such an origin. Its earliest Ngram usage is from The Freemasons' Monthly Magazine, March 1844, and refers to copies of a Masonic handbook for sale.

What is the origin of the phrase "cheaper by the dozen"?


5 Answers 5


Using Eighteenth Century Collections Online, I found this note at the end of an anti-Catholic pamphlet titled A Protestant's Revolution (Dublin, 1734), where other pamphlets by the same publisher ("S. Hyde, Widow in Dame-street") are advertised for publication. At the end of the list appears a nota bene:

N. B. The above Books are sold cheaper by the Dozen or the Hundred.

The statement appears to appeal to cost in bulk.

It's hard to know when the phrasing became idiom, but this example occurring so early and in the context of selling books suggests that its origins were likely in something as prosaic as what the words literally mean together in a marketing context and not a peculiar plantation breeding program that should be well-documented but yields nothing in the resources I've used so far.


The earliest variant of the phrase I could verify in print was 'cheaper in the dozen', from an article in the Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of 24 May 1790 (paywalled, emphasis mine):

In New-York the price [of Webster's Spelling-books] has commonly been thirteen shillings New-York currency a dozen, which is three-pence lawful money cheaper in the dozen....

The exact phrase 'cheaper by the dozen' turns up a dozen years later, in the Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of 12 Jul 1802 (paywalled, bold emphasis mine):

N. B. Said Chadwick will sell Morocco [leather shoes] cheaper by the dozen than can be bought at any store in this state.

Considering the context of the early uses, and the semantics of the phrase itself, the origin of the phrase is likely to have been marketing jargon.

I observe that the phrase was more recently popularized by the 1948 book Cheaper by the Dozen (Frank B Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey), as well as two movies based on the book, a 1950 original starring Clifton Webb, Jeanne Crain and Myrna Loy, and a 2003 remake starring Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt and Piper Perabo. A central theme of the book and movies was the putative efficiencies of having a dozen children.

Thus, it might be proposed that the title of the book derived, however indirectly, from folk tales about or the putative practice of "plantation owners forcing prisoners of war [more commonly known as slaves] to impregnate their [own] mother[s], resulting in a 'dozen' 'cheap' children with severe birth defects." [Bracketed material in the quote represents an attempt to clarify somewhat unusual use of the term "prisoner of war", etc.]

However, even supposing the authors of the book went so far as to confess that the title derived from a real or imagined practice such as is described in the folk tale, that confession would not in itself be sufficient evidence supporting that origin of the phrase.

  • 13
    "the story itself betrays ignorance or disregard of genetic principles by ascribing "severe birth defects" to a single generation of inbreeding." That's the least of it. In what war were the mothers' of prisoners at hand, on a plantation no less. And how would this action result in a dozen children and what makes them cheaper? Cheaper in the value to the plantation owner? What advantage would that give?
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 22:44
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    @JimmyJames: guest271314 has posted an answer on this question where they explain that "prisoner of war" is the way they're describing slaves on plantations in the US. They didn't make a strong claim for first-generation "severe birth defects" this time. Anyway, in its current state the answer isn't very convincing, but at least they quote a source. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 7:28
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    Per the book "Cheaper by the Dozen", the title of the book comes from the father in the book using the phrase (when the authors were children). It's pretty clear that by that point in time it was already a set phrase, not the father's creation. (In case anyone is wondering--the father would identify the nationality of a shopkeeper or service provider, and ask "do my little <same nationality, e.g. Irishmen> come cheaper by the dozen?" to inspire the shop keeper/service provider to give a discount by claiming to be of the same nationality as them.) Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 14:48

In addition to the excellent answers that it talks about bulk savings, the reason why dozen specifically is due to the historical practice of bulk units being twelve. This can be seen in eggs to this day, and also in bakers dozen where the 'base' bulk unit of a dozen is rounded up to thirteen, and 'dozens and dozens' to mean a lot.

So this is a simple substitution of 'dozen' for 'quantity' or 'bulk' to say cheaper in bulk.


I cannot give you an early attestation for the exact phrase "cheaper by the dozen" but the idea is common:

The proper worsted for knitting the stockings is of four-threads, at two-pence an ounce ; but if bought by the dozen pounds, is sold at twenty- four shillings the dozen, which is only three halfpence an ounce ...

from Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor etc etc (London, 1789).



Gil Scott-Heron, Winter In America, Central Park Summerstage, NYC 6-27-10 (HD).

This come from an old African folk tale. I know this because it was told to me by some old Africans. You got to be careful where you get your information. See you can't get no old African folk tales from no young Chinese people.

We know that englishmen in the colonies and what would become the "United States" forced prisoners of war (what englishmen refer to as "slaves") to have sexual intercourse with their mothers, in an effort to produce more prisoners of war, for free labor, fun, glory, material gain, and experimentation, see Medical Apartheid The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. Forcing young prisoners of war to impregnate their mothers is but one of the horrendous practices of englishmen in the western hemisphere. Without such experiments what is referred to "modern medicine" would not exist. If you find the time, browse the historical medical records of the University of Chicago.

That is the origin of the term motherfucker from which the cheaper by the dozen phrase was used to refer to the offspring of such forced impregnation.

The late Dick Gregory revealed many of these historical facts before their passing. It has been some time since last reviewed the actual phrases usage. Am not entirely certain if Dick Gregory is the one and only source of the meaning of that phrase, within the context of the offspring of male prisoners of war in the western hemisphere being forced to impregnate their mothers to produce more prisoners of war.

It is not surprising that anglophiles deny, or refute such origins of terms in the english language.

Though for an individual who is not an englophile, it is common knowledge that english is first and foremost an equivocal language, intended to be used for deception, capable of having more than one meaning for each word or phrase. There is no such thing as "good" or "proper" english. The language is a result of conquest by the Normans, Romans, whores, convicts, pimps, murderers, imperialism and several hundred years of institutional white supremacy.

In any event, this Dick Gregory - On Slavery, Reparations and Hurricanes

... we can't have no more. How we gonna do this?... So he made me, 14 years old, put a sock over my head, and have sex, fuck my mama...

...cause she didn't want him to get made and start killing the slaves...

... and so, I had to screw my mama man...

... That's where the word motherfucker comes from and then white boys shit and they hated the word until they got around black folks...

... and now you go to a white movie and they say mothafucka before they finish running the credits from the movie...

is a brief introduction to the emergence of the phrase "cheaper by the dozen" being used to refer to the offspring of so-called "black" or african women in the western hemisphere being force to be impregnated by their sons, the result of which was often birth defects, which were still valuable "property" for those englishmen who bought and sold human beings. The interview provides accounts for the origin of the terms honky and motherfucker. Will edit the answer to address specifically how the motherfucker history resulted in cheaper by the dozen.

Note, that same interview describes the origin of the term honky, which is derived from english, or so-called "white" men literally honking the horn of their vehicle outside of the whorehouse they were visiting to buy sex from so-called "black" women.

The History Of Male Slave Rape (Buck Breaking) And The Word MotherFucker (which are excerpts from the documentary Hidden Colors)

...especially in Jamaica, they were doing a process called "buck breaking" where the white supremacist slave owner or the white supremacist overseer would literally rape black men in front of the black population in order to break his spirit, in order to break him down as a man, in order to show dominance against him, in order to show the rest of the black population that this is not your leader I just made your leader submit to me sexually. -Tariq Nasheed, Lecturer/Producer

It was a matter of power and control and domination, and they would call it "buck busting" but it was really "butt busting".-Dr. Patricia Newton, Psychiatrist

Slavery continued until 1865... for about two generations, right, so how do you reconcile that?

You can no longer bring in Africans but you still have the business of slavery, so they still needed Africans to do the work down south, especially after the cotton gin was invented.

So you had the creation of breeding farms. Two of the largest slave breeding farms in the United States were on the eastern shore of Maryland, and right outside or Richmond, Virginia. The literally bred black people like cattle.

They would have a strong black man have sex with a healthy black woman.That woman could be his mother, his sister, his aunt, his cousin. It didn't matter. Because the end product was product a child that I can sell, bodies that I could sell and ship down to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. It was a business. -Anthony T. Browder

We had breeding farms in the United States... Even if you were mother and son, they would mate you... And so I tell a lot of my patients and a lot of my friends, you gotta stop using the "MF" word because that was a description of what actually happened when they would put the paper bag would go over the head to put one breeder against another when they were related. -Dr. Patricia Newton, Psychiatrist

The Origins of The Dirty Dozens

The term the dozens is believed to refer to the devaluing on the auction block of slaves who were past their prime, who were deformed, aged or who, after years of back-breaking toil, no longer were capable of hard labor. These enslaved human beings often were sold by the dozen. In African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana, African American author and professor Mona Lisa Saloy writes: “The dozens has its origins in the slave trade of New Orleans where deformed slaves—generally slaves punished with dismemberment for disobedience—were grouped in lots of a 'cheap dozen' for sale to slave owners. For a Black to be sold as part of the 'dozens' was the lowest blow possible.”

African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana By Mona Lisa Saloy, author, folklorist, essayist, poet, professor of English at Dillard University

"The Dozens" are an elaborate insult contest. Rather than insulting an opponent directly, a contestant derides members of the opponent's family, usually his mother. The dozens has its origins in the slave trade of New Orleans where deformed slaves—generally slaves punished with dismemberment for disobedience—were grouped in lots of a "cheap dozen" for sale to slave owners. For a Black to be sold as part of the "dozens" was the lowest blow possible.

  • 19
    I'm not disagreeing with any "facts from the answer", I'm just stating that none of it seems to be related to the question. The question is not about the etymology of "motherfucker", "butt busting", or "honky". "A cheap dozen" or "the dozens" could potentially be related to "cheaper by the dozen", but you haven't provided any evidence of that (and based on other answers, it seems likely they aren't). The downvotes are not because of some site-wide political agenda conspiracy, they're because this does not answer the question. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 20:01
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    Do not comment further on this answer. Ta. Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 9:39
  • 1
    As a stab at improving this answer, I did find some potentially relevant material. I am unable to access the material but perhaps you can: see note 12, bottom of page 6 in "The Negro Digest: Race, Exceptionalism and the Second World War". The reason I suggest you may be able to access it is that the Negro Digest volume/issue referenced is available at the University of Chicago, and I seem to recall you mentioning that resource.
    – JEL
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 22:09

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