922. "A dozen of eggs" sounds weird, but why? Rabbits performing violent acts are a common scene in medieval marginalia. But why are they there? Turns out—Monty Python was on to something!
922. "A dozen of eggs" sounds weird, but why? Rabbits performing violent acts are a common scene in medieval marginalia. But why are they there? Turns out—Monty Python was on to something!
| Transcript: https://grammar-girl.simplecast.com/episodes/dozen-bunnies/transcript
| Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.
| Watch my LinkedIn Learning writing courses.
| Peeve Wars card game.
| Grammar Girl books.
| HOST: Mignon Fogarty
| VOICEMAIL: 833-214-GIRL (833-214-4475) or https://sayhi.chat/grammargirl
| Grammar Girl is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.
| Theme music by Catherine Rannus.
| Grammar Girl Social Media Links: YouTube. TikTok. Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. Mastodon.
Rabbits performing violent acts are a common scene in medieval marginalia. But why are they there? Turns out—Monty Python was on to something!
Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. This week, in honor of Easter, we answer a question about a dozen eggs and then we talk about pictures of killer bunnies in Medieval manuscripts.
By Neal Whitman
We got a call from a listener named Karl, with a question about the word “dozen”:
"Miss Grammar Girl: This is Karl Webster, from the thriving metropolis of Tullahoma, Tennessee. A question for you: I can go, and it sounds OK, to say, “I’m going to buy two pounds of ground beef,” or “two pounds of ribeyes.” But then I will buy “a dozen eggs,” or “a dozen roses.” The reason for my question: There’s a podcast I listen to where one of the hosts is from Boston. He grew up in Boston, in the northeast, and he says he goes to buy “a dozen OF eggs,”’ and he gives his wife “a dozen OF roses.” Why does “two pounds of ground beef” sound OK, but “a dozen OF eggs” sound so odd? Thank you very much, Grammar Girl."
On the one hand, why should it be surprising that people say “a dozen of eggs”? After all, if the word “dozen” were plural, we could say “dozens of eggs” and it would sound just fine. On the other hand, it definitely IS surprising–or at least, it was for Karl, and for me, too.
“Dozen” is one of many English nouns that refer to specific numbers of things. Others include “pair,” “couple,” “trio,” “quartet,” “score,” “hundred,” “thousand,” “million,” and the like.
As it turns out, they don’t all follow the same set of grammar rules. I mean, they REALLY don’t all follow the same set of grammar rules. It’s astonishing how many sets of overlapping and intersecting rules describe how various words in this set behave. We’ll get a sense of these rules as we wade in and figure out exactly why “a dozen of eggs” set off Karl’s grammar sensors, while “dozens of eggs”...“dozen’t.”
Let’s look a little closer at how the word “dozen” behaves syntactically. With the singular form “dozen,” in Karl’s grammar and mine, the phrase “a dozen” doesn’t need an “of” to link it to a plural noun, as in “a dozen eggs.” Another rule about “dozen” is that when you want to talk about more than one dozen, it matters whether you have a specific number in mind. If you do, you still have to use the singular form “dozen,” as in “two dozen,” “five dozen,” etc. You don’t say “two dozens.” But if you don’t have a particular number in mind, then you have to use the plural. That is, you can have “dozens,” or “many dozens.” And that brings us to a third rule: When you’re using the plural form “dozens,” now you DO need an “of” to link it to a plural noun. That is, “dozens of eggs” is fine, but not “dozens eggs.”
In addition to “dozen,” words following these three rules include “hundred,” “thousand,” “million,” and similar words referring to powers of ten. We’ll use “hundred” to illustrate. First of all, you don’t need an “of” after singular “hundred,” as in “a hundred eggs. Second, when you want to talk about more than one group of a hundred, it matters whether you have a specific number in mind. With a specific number, you still have to use the singular form, as in “two hundred,” “three hundred,” and so on. But with an indefinite number, you have to use the plural, as in “hundreds,” or “many hundreds.” And finally, when you’re using the plural form “hundreds,” you DO need an “of,” as in “hundreds of ants,” but not “hundreds ants.”
Now let’s go back to singular “dozen” and talk about another rule this word follows. The phrase that caught Karl’s ear was “a dozen OF eggs,” which sounded strange to his ears, and mine. But on closer investigation, it turns out that “dozen of” sometimes sounds fine. For example, although “a dozen of eggs” is weird, “a dozen of THE eggs” is good. So is “a dozen of YOUR eggs,” “two dozen of THESE eggs,” or even “half a dozen of THEM.” The pattern we’re seeing here is that if you put any word in there that indicates you’re talking about a particular set of eggs (or cats, or houses, or whatever it is), then it’s OK to use an “of.” In fact, it’s mandatory: “a dozen these eggs,” without an “of,” is ungrammatical. So here’s the rule for when you’re using the singular form “dozen”: If you’re talking about a particular set of items, the “of” is necessary; if not, the “of” is forbidden!
“A dozen eggs”: Yes. “A dozen the eggs”: No.
“A dozen of eggs”: No. “A dozen of the eggs”: Yes.
For this rule also, “dozen” is joined by words such as “hundred,” “thousand,” and “million.” For example, “Aardvark ate two hundred chocolate-covered ants” is fine; but “Aardvark ate two hundred OF chocolate-covered ants” is not. But if we know we’re talking about some particular chocolate-covered ants, such as Fenster’s stash of them, suddenly the “of” isn't just allowed; it’s required. “Aardvark ate two hundred Fenster’s chocolate-covered ants” is not grammatical; but “Aardvark ate two hundred OF Fenster’s chocolate-covered ants” passes.
Of course, in all these patterns, “dozen” is following the rules of Karl’s grammar and mine, in which a phrase like “a dozen of chocolate-covered eggs” doesn’t work. But are there set-denoting nouns in English that DO follow the pattern that Karl has been hearing with “dozen” as used by the Boston podcast host?
In Karl’s grammar and mine, if I’m using the singular form “dozen,” and I don’t have a particular collection of 12 items in mind, I don’t pair it with “of.” But are there English set-denoting words that standardly DO take an “of” when you’re not talking about a specific collection of items? Yes, there are. In the list of set-denoting words from earlier, the ones for the smaller numbers work this way. For example, “couple” can take an “of,” as in “Squiggly and a couple of friends were playing poker.” So can “pair,” as in “Squiggly saw that he had a pair of kings.” So where Karl lives, is “dozen” starting to find its way into the family of words such as “pair,” “couple,” and “score”?
Now depending on your own dialect of English, you may be thinking, “Wait–the word ‘couple’ doesn’t need an ‘of.’ You could also say, ‘Squiggly and a couple friends were playing poker.’” The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage has an interesting entry on this topic. It starts off with a discussion of a related question on the meaning of the word “couple,” and then transitions to talking about the word “of”:
While the commentators were worrying whether the noun "couple" could be used to mean simply “two” and whether it could mean “a few”..., the word itself was following the path of development that "dozen" had taken centuries earlier–dropping its following "of" and being used like an adjective. We are not sure when this process began in speech, but we begin to find written evidence in the 1920s. (p.303)
That was a surprise: Apparently, far from being an innovation, “a dozen of eggs” used to be the regular pattern, and once upon a time, “a dozen eggs” might have been new in the same way that “a couple friends” is now. In their entry for “dozen,” they have more to say on the subject. Citing a piece written in 1957 by the lexicographer Bergen Evans, they noted that pairing “of” with “dozen” used to be common, but that such usage “is now felt to be old-fashioned and is no longer used much” (370).
So with that, it was time for some corpus-searching. I looked first at the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts, which consists of 15 million words of formal, written British English from 1710 through 1926. I searched for the phrase “dozen of,” and found 55 examples altogether. Of them, 33, or 60%, were attached to phrases that referred to a specific set of items, so the “of” is what we expect. Here are a couple examples: “half a dozen of my long letters,” and “a dozen of the smartest and most gentlemanly boys.” However, the other 40% did NOT refer to a definite set of items, and included phrases such as “Had ten dozen of hornets stung him” and “a half-dozen of dandies cantering after her carriage.”
For a more-recent snapshot, I looked at the British National Corpus, now available through Brigham Young University’s English Corpora collection. It consists of 100 million words of British English from the 1980s and 1990s. When I searched for “dozen of” there, I found zero examples of it with an indefinite set of items. So although phrases like “a dozen of eggs” were common enough in British English to make up 40% of the examples prior to the first part of the 20th century, by the end of that century, the usage had pretty well died out.
But what about American English? For this, I looked at BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English, which has data from American English from the 1820s to the 2010s. I searched for “dozen of,” and inspected the first 20 examples for each decade. (Or rather, I inspected the first score of examples for each decade — a score is 20 of something.) In the 1820s through the 1840s, “dozen of” with indefinite noun phrases ranged between 50% and 78% of the examples I found. Here’s one from 1823: “when his horse was killed from under him, and a dozen of shots fired over his head.”
From the 1850s through the 1890s, “dozen of” with indefinite noun phrases ranged between 5% and 15% of the examples I found. Here’s one from 1860: “A deer…plunged into the stream, and after a dozen of vigorous strokes from his hoofs…landed on the wild-wood side of the bayou.”
After that, from the 1900s all the way through the 2010s, there were very few examples of “dozen of” with indefinite noun phrases. I found at most one or two in each score that I looked at. Here’s one from 2001, which has both “couple” and “dozen” in it–“couple” without the “of,” and “dozen” with it: “Western governments have arrested perhaps a couple dozen of known Qaeda suspects since Sept. 11.”
So in answer to your question, Karl, it looks like the dialect you’re hearing has preserved an older pattern for “dozen” that has gone mostly extinct in US English and UK English. And I’ve been reminded not only of how much present-day variation you can find in English grammar, but also of how much variation over time.
That segment was written by Neal Whitman, an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.
By Samantha Enslen
It's almost Easter. What better time to talk about bunnies?
More specifically, killer bunnies!
What am I talking about? I'm talking about medieval manuscripts and the often highly violent bunnies used to illustrate them. Let's go back in time – back before 1440, when the printing press was invented. In those days, there was no way to mass-produce a book. They had to be copied by hand.
This hard work was often done by monks scribbling away in monasteries.
Actually, they weren’t scribbling. They were writing with slow, painstaking care. That’s because they were writing on animal skins, not the smooth paper we know today. And they were writing with a quill and a pot of ink. Each dip of the pen would get them a few words, at most. And when they ran out of ink, they’d have to make more by hand.
The bizarre beasts of marginalia
Perhaps because this process was so tedious, monks began to illustrate their manuscripts. Some were standard drawings depicting the topic of the book. But others were unrelated, and drawn in the margins. These were called “marginalia.”
And boy, the things we find in medieval margins. There are fantastic creatures, like dragons, griffons, and half-human beasts. There are grotesque drawings of disembodied body parts. Absurd drawings of knights fighting snails, or monkeys playing bagpipes. Obscene drawings of humans doing … well … obscene things. Heretical drawings making fun of monks, nuns, and bishops.
These absurd illustrations depict an upside-down world; one existing, apparently, right alongside our own.
Rabbits behaving badly
Now strangely, some of the characters we see most often in this upside-down world are bunnies. In medieval times, rabbits were seen as a symbol of innocence and purity. They’re often shown alongside the Holy Family or Christ.
But in the upside-down world, they were shown in a very different way: as deviant, sexualized, and violent actors.
For example, we find bunnies beheading people. Torturing them. Hunting them down and shooting them with bow and arrow. Beating them with sticks.
We also find bunnies having their way with dogs. Riding on them, stabbing them, and executing them.
Rabbits … because why?
So why did bunnies play such a prominent role in this art form? Why do they show up so often in medieval manuscripts, doing such strange things?
Scholars don’t know exactly why, but they have some ideas.
One theory is that this depiction of bunnies served as social commentary. We think times are chaotic now, but back then, violent death, rampant disease, and social upheaval were part of day-to-day life. Drawings of rabbits behaving just as badly as humans could have been a commentary on the chaotic state of the world.
Another theory is that by placing these drawings in margins, illustrators were literally “marginalizing” bad behaviors. Because the texts themselves were often religious, the grotesque drawings around them could have represented the forces of evil circling the edges of lawful society and trying to break in.
Another theory is that the more humorous versions of marginalia, known as “drollery,” existed simply to make people laugh. They were a safely rebellious way of giving side-eye to the severely unequal, oppressive feudal system. Laughing at this world of hardship and harsh religion may have made it a bit more bearable.
A final theory is the one I suggested at the beginning of this episode. These drawings were just a form of entertainment. A way for bored monks to amuse themselves during long, tedious days of transcription. And perhaps a way for them to channel their more deviant dreams into a fairly safe medium.
Whyever they were drawn, marginalia and its killer bunnies offer us a cloudy window into the minds of medieval monks as they toiled away on what are now some of our most prized ancient manuscripts and into the society they lived in.
That segment was written by Samantha Enslen an award-winning writer who runs the writing and editing agency Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com.
Before we get to the familect, I have a really sweet reaction story to last week's familect from Chuck:
Hi Grammar Girl, this is Chuck Tomasi again.
Your familect story from the latest episode on March 28th made me laugh.
The listener said that when he was driving, his kids would always ask how far away they were from a destination, and his response was always, "We're 20 minutes away."
Well that's eerily similar to a story my brothers and I love to share.
You see, I grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a big old Victorian home, and when my dad needed us for a task around the house, he would always ask us for 20 minutes of our time.
It didn't matter whether we were holding a flashlight so he could see the pipes under the sink or perhaps it was an entire weekend to clean the basement.
His request was always, "Could I get 20 minutes of your time?"
Well, after we got older, bought homes of our own, and started a family, we occasionally returned the favor by asking him for 20 minutes of his time.
He smiles and complies without complaint.
And for the record, this recording took me about 20 minutes of my time.
What a great story. Thanks, Chuck!
And finally, I have a familect story from Amy.
"Hi, Mignon. Amy Taylor from Green Castle, Pennsylvania. A big of your show, Grammar Girl. Been listening for quite some time now. I always like your episode about familects, so what I wanna share with you. tonight, your listeners, is my familect. I am the proud mother of a now 15-year-old daughter and when she was a toddler she would oftentimes cough and sneeze. And of course, we would always say, 'Bless you,' 'Gazuntite,' or what have you, but this one day, she looked at us and said, 'Excuse me, I snoughed." What she had done was mix the words 'sneeze' and 'cough,' and to this day, that is a ritual for our family: anytime someone coughs and sneezes. We always say 'oh my goodness you snoghed. Hope you enjoyed the story. Thank you."
Thanks, Amy. "Snough" is a great word!
If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. Call from a nice quiet place, and we might play it on the show.
Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, and thanks to the team. Our audio engineer Nathan Semes, our director of podcasts is Adam Cecil, and our marketing associate is Davina Tomlin. Our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy, whose favorite food is tacos and knows all the best taco places in Atlanta.
And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.
The following did not appearing the audio podcast but is included here for reference:
Alexander, Jane. Why Medieval Artists Doodled Killer Bunnies in Their Manuscript Margins. https://www.mentalfloss.com/posts/medieval-killer-rabbits. April 8, 2022.
British Library. Explore illuminated manuscripts from the national libraries of the UK and France. https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts.
British Library. Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2021/06/killer-rabbits.html. June 16, 2021.
British Library. Medieval rabbits: the good, the bad and the bizarre. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/04/medieval-rabbits-the-good-the-bad-and-the-bizarre.html. April 13, 2020.
Burgess, Anika. The Strange and Grotesque Doodles in the Margins of Medieval Books. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/medieval-marginalia-books-doodles. May 9, 2017.
De Vos, Marjolin. The Adventures of Medieval Bunny, Part I: The Killer Rabbit. https://blog.digitizedmedievalmanuscripts.org/medieval-killer-bunny/. July 27, 2013.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-were-medieval-knights-always-fighting-snails-1728888/. October 14, 2013.
Marshall, Colin. Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad. https://www.openculture.com/2019/03/killer-rabbits-in-medieval-manuscripts-why-so-many-drawings-in-the-margins-depict-bunnies-going-bad.html. March 29, 2019.
Schultz, Colin. Why Were Medieval Knights Always Fighting Snails?
Stanska, Zuzanna. The Unbelievable Story of Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/killer-rabbits-in-medieval-manuscripts/. January 22, 2023.