I was writing something else and one of my characters said something was happening (a child speaking) at ten to the dozen, and he – and I, began to wonder what ten to the dozen meant – well we both understood it, he used it after all, but where did it originate? Ten what to a dozen what?
Ten to the dozen means doing something very quickly – but ten is less than a dozen so how can it be quick? Hmmm… so I look it up and I should have known the original phrase was nineteen to the dozen, I remember that now. On one of the sites I looked at for an explanation, there was a rather snooty comment that ‘ten to the dozen’ was used by people too lazy to say ‘nineteen to the dozen’… I think it is much more likely to have been misheard!
So the original phrase, ‘nineteen to the dozen’, used usually when someone is speaking a lot or very quickly, or it could be anything else moving speedily, someone’s legs going ten to the dozen as they were running or riding a bike maybe.
Apparently, the original phrase comes from Cornish tin mines; tin mines, like mines elsewhere were prone to flooding so once there were mechanical pump engines, the water could be pumped out more quickly and efficiently than pumping by hand – powered by coal. it took twelve bushells of coal to pump out 19,000 gallons of water. So ten to the dozen really does not make sense and I won’t use it again!
I came across a very interesting forum page discussing this:
… if you look down the page to a comment by Panjandrum you will find a scientific explanation – totally beyond me I’m afraid, but very fascinating all the same!