Dear Word Detective: In mulling over why we package so many things by the dozen, I ended up at a dozen-dozen, or “gross” by name. “Gross” (probably Latin?) means not only 144, but a large amount of weight (“Gross Vehicle Weight” a sign we are all particular about here in Minneapolis), and, at least when I was a teenager, “repulsive” and/or “disgusting.” Are they all related? A dozen thanks for your reply. — Barney Johnson.
Only a dozen? You’d think, with the news flying thick and fast of billions and trillions being up for grabs these days, that I might hope for at least a “baker’s dozen,” otherwise known to the carb-averse as thirteen. Wikipedia, by the way, has an entertaining and somewhat credible article on “Baker’s dozen,” explaining that the term dates back to the 13th century, when Henry III of England decided that bakers who shortchanged customers were simply thieves and should lose a hand. Bakers immediately began giving thirteen Twinkies for every dozen ordered just to be on the safe side. Since “baker” is so close to “banker,” I’ve been trying all morning to get the Treasury Department on the phone to pass along Henry’s insight, but there seems to be no one home.
Our English word “dozen,” by the way, comes to us, via Old French, from the Latin “duodecim,” meaning “twelve” (“duo,” two, plus “decem,” ten). I’ve often wondered why we seem so fond of the number twelve, since most people (except the bad bakers) have ten fingers. Apparently it’s all based on the fact that the moon goes through twelve cycles in a year.
“Gross” is an interesting and mildly mysterious word. It comes from the Old French “gros,” meaning “big, thick or coarse,” which came in turn from the Late Latin “grossus,” meaning “large or bulky.” The odd thing about “grossus” is that there is no similar earlier word in classical Latin, and no one knows where “grossus” came from. The original sense of “gross” when it appeared in English as an adjective in the 14th century was “massive, bulky,” along with the corollary meaning of “obvious, glaringly noticeable,” a sense we still use in such phrases as “gross incompetence.” It also took on the meaning of “entire” or “total” (as opposed to “net”), the sense used on those bridge warning signs as well as in “gross national product.”
Early in the 16th century, “gross” came to mean “coarse” or “large grained,” a sense extended to mean, first, “inferior or common,” and then “repulsive or disgusting,” whether applied to food or personal behavior. The teen slang use of “gross” you mention, which first appeared in 1959, was actually just a reinvigoration of this very old sense.
“Gross” as a noun meaning “one dozen dozen of something” is actually a shortening of the Old French “grosse douzaine,” meaning “large dozen.” This “gross” meaning 144 of something is also sometimes called a “small gross” to differentiate it from a “large gross,” which is twelve gross (1728), which is a lot of just about anything. By the way, the English noun “grocer” comes from the medieval Latin “grossarius,” meaning “one who buys and sells in large quantities; wholesaler.” The application of the term to a merchant selling small amounts of food, etc., to individuals arose in the 15th century.