Q From Karen J Mora: A dog came to visit my work today. He was very excited at being in a new place with lots of people to greet. This was evident in his bobbed tail wagging so fast it became a blur! One of our clients, a polite Brit of 80-odd years, commented, ‘Oh look at its tail! It’s going forty to the dozen!’ She was unable to give an explanation of the meaning of that phrase. And it’s certainly one that isn’t used in Northern Arkansas, USA. Any ideas?
A Inflation is everywhere, it seems, even in language. The usual form is nineteen to the dozen; on occasion I’ve come across twenty to the dozen, but never forty. It’s now perhaps a little old-fashioned as a British expression, though you can still find examples in newspapers and daily speech.
The usual meaning, as you will have gathered, is to do something at a great rate. It most often refers to speed of speaking, as in this instance from the Daily Mail of 23 October 2003: “Talking nineteen to the dozen, her conversation is still peppered with outrageous references and bawdy asides.” The idea is that the rate of talking is so great that when other people say merely a dozen words, the speaker gets in 19. It’s also sometimes used to describe rapid heartbeat in times of danger, and to refer to other fast-moving or fast-changing things (like dogs’ tails).
Nobody seems to have the slightest idea why 19 is the traditional number to use here, but it has been in that form ever since it was first recorded in the eighteenth century.
There is a story about it which associates it with the efficiency of Cornish beam engines. It is said that such engines in the Newcomen era of the eighteenth century could pump 19,000 gallons of water out of a tin mine while burning only 12 bushels of coal. I am sure in my own mind that this is a folk tale, as an origin so specific and arcane would have been unlikely to generate a popular saying. It's more likely that the figures were quoted in some treatise and were then picked up as a way to explain the origin of this puzzling phrase. But nobody can know for sure because its early history is obscure.
Alan Craig is a subscriber to World Wide Words in Australia. He told me about a version that’s known to him and others in that country: ten to the dozen. Newspaper archives show that to be common, not only in Australia, but also in Britain. There are dozens of recent examples, such as this one from the Liverpool Echo of February this year: “He’s witty and irreverent and talking ten to the dozen about his upcoming projects.” Logically, of course, one would expect that something going at that rate to be slower than usual, though all the examples show it is meant in the same sense that something is going very fast. It’s a excellent example both of the illogicality of language and of the way that expressions can mutate over time.