Q From Robert Visconti: In Melancholy Dane, Damon Runyon describes folks waiting to enter a performance of Hamlet dressed “in the old thirteen and odd.” What a curious construction! Where does it come from?
A This is the full quote from the short story:
Well, I finally go to the theater with Ambrose and it is quite a high-toned occasion with nearly everybody in the old thirteen-and-odd because Mansfield Sothern has a big following in musical comedy and it seems that his determination to play Hamlet produces quite a sensation.
The Melancholy Dane, by Damon Runyon, in Collier’s Weekly, 18 Mar. 1944.
I mentioned this in a piece in 2006 about soup and fish, the Wodehousian slang term for evening dress, because I had come across it in the same context. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it then and time was too short to enquire. Having now done so, I’m not much further forward.
It’s slang of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the USA. The first instance that I’ve come across was in the New York Herald in September 1898 and the last — apart from Damon Runyon’s — was in a short story by George Ade, The Fable of Mr. Whipple’s Dress Suit, syndicated in newspapers in 1933. The dating suggests that the expression had already fallen out of fashion by the time Runyon used it; Jean Wagner’s assertion in a 1966 book about his slang that he had invented it is clearly mistaken.
An early example makes clear that the two slang terms refer to different things:
“Ain’t you dining out? What’ll I git you — the ‘soup-and-fish’ or the ‘thirteen-and-the-odd?’” Stephen disclaimed any desire for the dinner coat first mentioned, declaring his preference for the more formal tailed garment.
An Enemy to Society, by G Bronson-Howard, 1911.
Here, the thirteen-and-the-odd is what we know as white tie or top hat and tails, a full formal evening dress of a black tail coat, white waistcoat, white bow tie and top hat. Soup and fish is a tuxedo or the equivalent called black tie because it is normally worn with a black bow tie. But an earlier example (found for me by Christopher Philippo) contradicts this:
“Tod” was as graceful and courteous as it is possible to be. He shook hands with this man and that woman, then went to his room and came down in half an hour dressed in his “thirteens and the odd,” as the boys around Saratoga call a Tuxedo and low cut vest.
New York Evening Telegram, 11 Aug. 1899.
After I mentioned it for the first time, several readers pointed out that the crackerjack uniform of junior enlisted men in the US Navy is fastened by a thirteen-button flap. This may be relevant, but probably not.
A card game of the same name is mentioned by a witness in a case before the supreme court of Alabama in 1855, who claimed that it could also be played with dominoes. Nobody else mentions the dominos version but the card game is described in a number of American compendia, such as The Modern Pocket Hoyle of 1868. It was a version of whist for two people, who were each dealt 13 cards, with another turned up on the pack to indicate trumps. Hence, I suppose, thirteen and the odd.
It’s possible that the black-and-white of the cards (or dominoes if the game was more common than the references imply) was transferred by analogy to formal dress. The written evidence hints that it was first used for the tuxedo, introduced at Tuxedo Park in New York State in the middle 1880s, but was later transferred to the formal white tie, with soup-and-fish taking over for the tuxedo.
The phrase is so curious and unusual that there surely must be a connection between the game and the dress styles. But there may be more to it. Several readers pointed out the French expression, se mettre sur son trente-et-un, literally to put on one’s 31, the equivalent of English dressed to the nines (it’s said to derive from trentain, a fine cloth). Might our expression have been a mistranslation of the French as thirty and the one, which was confused with or influenced by the name of the card game?
Unfortunately, the evidence is so sparse that as matters stand it’s impossible to be sure what was going on in people’s minds.