Twelve Gets You Thirteen and Other Lagniappes

The other morning I was feeding my alien fetus its preferred breakfast of Little Debbie mini-chocolate donuts and coffee [Note: regular readers will remember the column from several years ago where I surmised that an alien abduction and impregnation was the only logical explanation for my expanding waistline] when I began to wonder about bakers and, more specifically, the term “baker’s dozen.”

In case you are unfamiliar with this term, a “baker’s dozen” is 13 of something, as opposed to a dozen, which means 12 of something. Lest you think this term implies that bakers are mathematically challenged, here’s the story behind the term.

The term originates in England, though the practice pre-dates the term by several hundred years. Bakers in England were regulated by a guild called the Worshipful Company of Bakers, which dates back at least to the reign of Henry II (1154 – 1189).

In 1266, Henry III re-enacted an ancient law called the Assize of Bread and Ale. In essence, this law set the price of bread (or ale) according to the price of wheat. Any baker (or brewer) who was found to have sold “short measure” (or underweight) could be fined, flogged or pilloried. In order to avoid these penalties, so the theory goes, bakers started the habit of giving an extra loaf of bread to customers who bought 12 loaves.

Okay, you are probably ahead of me on this and see the problem with this theory: if bakers wanted to be certain that they weren’t “short measuring” their customers, what did they do for a customer who bought 5, 7, or 11 loaves of bread? Well, folks, it’s time to look at another word: lagniappe.

The word lagniappe is actually an American word coming from the French Creole, which has been traced back to the Andean term “yapa,” meaning “a little extra.” In its American derivation it means “a small gift given to the customer at the time of purchase.”

So now, let’s go back to “baker’s dozen.” If the idea behind giving an extra loaf of bread to a customer who bought 12 loaves was to protect against the possibility of being accused of “short measuring,” it seems reasonable to assume that bakers of the era were giving something extra on other smaller purchases, as well.

Indeed, records indicate that bakers routinely gave customers buying a single loaf and extra piece of bread to avoid “short measuring,” in a practice called “in-bread” or sometimes “vantage loaf.” According to the Worshipful Company of Bakers, which still exists today, this practice continued into the early 20th century.

As I mentioned earlier, the term “baker’s dozen” didn’t come along until several centuries after the actual practice of “vantage loafing” began. The first recorded instance of the word occurs in 1599 in the curious quote in John Cooke’s Tu Quoque where he writes, “Mine’s a baker’s dozen: Master Bubble, tell your money.”

But it wasn’t until Hotten’s Slang Dictionary of 1864, where the full definition of the term, as we know it today, was provided: “This consists of 13 or 14; the surplus number, called the inbread, being thrown in for fear of incurring the penalty for short weight.”

After learning all of this I went back to my bag of Little Debbie mini-chocolate donuts and noticed that rather than telling me how many donuts my bag contained, it simply stated that the contents amounted to 10.5 ounces or 298 grams. Interesting now that you know the full story, isn’t it?

Of course, the story doesn’t end here. In the ensuing days I have been wondering about broader applications for the baker’s lagniappes. For instance, what if we had a baker’s par in the game of golf? Imagine how many more happy golfers there would be in the world if, when they shot a 5 on a par-4 hole they could declare a “baker’s par”; if when they actually shot a 3 on a par-3 hole they could exclaim in delight, “A baker’s birdie!”

And what if, when you were bowling, and on your first ball you knocked down 9 pins? Why you could push the re-set, declare a “baker’s strike” and go sit down until your next turn.

Best of all, what if the world had something called “baker’s banking?” Imagine the joy you would feel when you handed the teller $144 dollars for deposit and she handed you back a receipt showing that you had been credited for $156!

I could go on (and on and on) but you get the idea.

As a final note on the term baker’s dozen I should probably make mention of the fact that there is currently a great debate over whether it should be baker’s or bakers’. If this seems like a frivolous controversy, I am inclined to agree with you, which is the same feeling I am sure many of you are experiencing as you finish reading this column.