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seven half-dozen
Posted: 30 July 2012 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I’ve been reading the P.G. Wodehouse story collection Blandings Castle and in one of the Mr. Mulliner stories contained therein I encountered a previously unfamiliar phrase, “seven half-dozen”.  I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but the context is a description of the capture of a gorilla to be used in the movies, and the wording is approximately thus:  “It was said that it cost the lives of seven half-dozen members of the expedition to capture him.”

I’m not sure how to parse this.  The ways that have occurred to me are:

a) Seven OR a half-dozen, i.e., about six or seven, analogous to the way “a couple three” is sometimes used in colloquial US English to mean about two or three.

b) Literally, seven half-dozens, forty-two.  In the US it would be more normal to say “three-and-a-half dozen”.

c) Seven-and-a-half dozens, i.e., ninety.

Both of the latter seem an improbably high casualty count for the capture of even an exceptionally fierce gorilla (IIRC the expedition that captured King Kong suffered fewer losses than that, though there was a lot of collateral damage later).  However, as I say, I’m not familiar with the expression.  Is it common in the UK, and can someone explicate it authoritatively?

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Posted: 30 July 2012 11:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’ve never heard it (north east England), nor do I know what it means - was Wodehouse being flippant? Is it an oxymoron?

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Posted: 30 July 2012 01:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Pretty sure it’s a typo.  Google Books has it this way in American Magazine, Vol. 114 (1932): “Its capture in its native jungle was said to have cost the lives of some half-dozen members of the expedition...” Which makes excellent sense.  I submit that when it got set in type for its appearance in a book “some” got changed to “seven” and nobody noticed.

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Posted: 30 July 2012 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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lh’s is by far the most plausible of the explanations offered. “Seven half-dozen” is not a normal turn of phrase - anywhere.

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Posted: 30 July 2012 02:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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That seems reasonable.

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Posted: 30 July 2012 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I tried a google books search of the exact phrase, “seven half-dozen” with no date restrictions.  It turned up seven hits.  Five are books containing the line from P.G. Wodehouse that you referenced.

The exact line (at least as rendered in the hits i had) is “Its capture in its native jungle was said to have cost the lives of seven half-dozen members of the expedition, and at the time when this story begins it was lodged in a stout cage on the Perfecto-Zizzbaum lot at a salary of seven hundred and fifty dollars a week, with billing guaranteed in letters not smaller than those of Edmund Wingham and Luella Benstead, the stars.”. The line is from a short story called “Monkey Business”.  [EDIT: the “monkey business” title appears to have been tacked on in a reprinting of the tale.  But I’ll use it anyway because its a useful shorthand.] It’s possible the first edition had a typo and these books all repeated the same mistake, but I don’t think “seven half-dozen was necessarily an error (more on this below).

One hit to “seven half-dozen” is a fluke (a reference to “twenty-seven half-dozen").  And the last is a “literary biography” of Wodehouse by Benny Green which contains both the above quote and the following line “The loss of those seven half-dozen heroes in capturing the creature had been a severe blow which Mr. Schnellehamer had been able to bear with fortitude, especially as none of the lives lost had had any connection with his own.” I can’t tell from the annoyingly small snippet if this line is a quote from Wodehouse or Mr. Green’s own editorial upon it, but this line does not appear in the same short story . ( But Mr. Schnellenhamer is the boss of the main character in the Monkey Business short story.)

My personal guess, though it is really just a WAG, is that “seven half-dozen” is not a typo, and it literally means seven half-dozen, or, 42. I don’t think it’s an idiomatic expression:  If it was an expression, even an obscure one, I’d expect at least one non-wodehousian hit.  While 42 is a seemingly remarkable number of deaths, the story is basically a parody, and it would be consistent with its tone and its plot for the details relating to the gorilla’s capture to be exaggerated in this way.  The central plot point of the story (i’ll try to avoid spoiling the ending) involves the main character finding himself in the gorilla’s cage.  He is a timid man, and being in the cage of a ferocious beast is particularly terrifying for him.  It would make sense for Wodehouse to set the stage for the story by making the gorilla as terrifying as possible, which would be furthered by using an absurdly high casualty figure.  And the oddly indirect phrasing (seven half-dozen, instead of 42) may have been used precisely because it was an unusual, and thus memorable, turn of phrase, and because the seemingly flippant phraseology underscores its absurdity.

It also may have just been a typo, as Language Hat concluded.  But I can’t help but wonder if the version LH cited was an attempt to “correct” something that wasn’t a mistake, but, rather, an intentional frivolity.

[ Edited: 30 July 2012 03:57 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 30 July 2012 11:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Perhaps the author was giving the character something quirky and unique to say.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 03:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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This 1960 edition has “several half dozen.”

I suspect this is the result of intervention by the editor, attempting to make sense of it.

Languagehat’s hypothesis seems the most plausible, but we don’t know that the 1932 editor didn’t change seven to some.

To sort this one out, we would need to go back to the manuscript, if it still exists. At the very least, you’d need to consult numerous early editions and know their editorial histories. This is not a question that can be resolved via Google Books. You need a rare books library that has a good Wodehouse collection.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Languagehat’s hypothesis seems the most plausible, but we don’t know that the 1932 editor didn’t change seven to some.

There’s very little we can know for sure in this life, but I’d bet money on my being right (having been an editor lo these many decades and knowing too much about how books are made and lazily reprinted).  I’m sorry, but “seven half-dozen” is not English, however much one might try to force it into sense, and there’s no way a stylist like Wodehouse would have perpetrated it.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 07:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Mind you, even “several half-dozen” or “some half-dozen” is kind of an odd thing to say.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 08:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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When I read the subject line the first thing that crossed my mind before reading any further was ‘seven and a half dozen’ i.e. 90.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 08:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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OP Tipping - 31 July 2012 07:50 AM

Mind you, even “several half-dozen” or “some half-dozen” is kind of an odd thing to say.

“Some half-dozen” sounds perfectly idiomatic BrE to me ... indeed, a quick check on Google News finds the phrase used in some half-dozen US news sources in the past month, so it’s clearly not unknown in Leftpondia ...

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Posted: 31 July 2012 08:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I think language hat’s right and that “seven half-dozen” was almost certainly an error.  However, FWIW, I don’t think there’s anything ungrammatical or inherently nonsensical about the phrase “seven half-dozen”.  The only thing that is really odd about it is that we don’t normally pluralize “half dozen” as a unit of measurement. Of course, saying that “we don’t normally” use such a unit of measurement is a considerable understatement, and saying that the “only” thing that is strange about “seven half-dozen” is that it is bizarre to pluralize “half-dozen” is sort of like saying that the “only” thing wrong with phrenology is that it’s complete bunk.

I like to think that even the most technically proficient and stylistically conservative writer will occasionally indulge in an odd turn of phrase in a flight of whimsy, so I have a certain affection for my speculative notion, but I readily admit that my notion is, itself, an indulgence in a whimsy.  And I certainly do not have enough familiarity with Wodehouse’s works to make any sort of judgement about whether it is plausible that he would ever indulge in such an odd turn of phrase, no matter how whimsical he was feeling.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 09:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Zythophile - 31 July 2012 08:09 AM

OP Tipping - 31 July 2012 07:50 AM
Mind you, even “several half-dozen” or “some half-dozen” is kind of an odd thing to say.

“Some half-dozen” sounds perfectly idiomatic BrE to me ... indeed, a quick check on Google News finds the phrase used in some half-dozen US news sources in the past month, so it’s clearly not unknown in Leftpondia ...

I agree, nothing wrong at all with some half-dozen. While there is a principle in Shakespearean editing of lectio difficilior potior, let the more difficult reading stand, which recognizes that there is a tendency for scribes or compositors to smooth away an unfamiliar word or expression by replacing it with something more familiar, I don’t think it applies here and I think language hat has it right.

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Posted: 31 July 2012 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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"Seven half-dozen” and “several half-dozen” both sound quite tin-eared to me, and implausible as the utterance of a master like Wodehouse.  Likewise out of character for Mr. Mulliner, before anyone advances the argument that Wodehouse was deliberately having his character phrase it awkwardly.

“Some half-dozen” (meaning “about six") is perfectly idiomatic to me, and still seems the most likely explanation.  Absent evidence that “seven half-dozen” is a normal idiom in some dialect of English that Wodehouse was familiar with, I incline to believe that “some half-dozen” is the intended meaning, and even if an original (typewritten) manuscript were found that said “seven half-dozen”, I would still suspect it was a typo (Wodehouse’s, rather than the typesetter’s).  (FTM, having bad handwriting myself, I can easily imagine a handwritten “some” that looked more like “seven”.)

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Posted: 02 August 2012 03:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I was curious about the more general ”x half-dozen,” with x being some integer (besides seven) between two and ten, so I did some Googling.  The phrase “three half-dozen” is quite popular, but this is due almost entirely to a song, apparently about a synthesizer, which contains the lyric “We get three half-dozen beats to choose from.” A Google Books search gave an example of the phrase in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s entry on probability ("Three half-dozen of dice having been thrown..."), as well as several others, mostly from the early 20th century or before.  (I tried linking to the search results page, but the link kept getting mangled.) The most interesting example to me was a passage from an English translation of a Chinese short story ("Divorce," by Lu Xun, translated by William A. Lyell):

“We haven’t met before, it’s true, but I’ve known about you a long time, Uncle-wood,” said the fat man respectfully.  “Is there a single soul in all eighteen of the three half-dozen villages hereabouts who hasn’t heard what happened?  We’ve all known, for a long time now, how that Shi lad left your girl to shack up with that young widow...”

Having no knowledge of Chinese, I can’t say how “all eighteen of the three half-dozen villages” is represented in that language or why the translator chose that particular wording.  The story was apparently written in 1925, and this translation was published in 1990.

After “three half-dozen,” I restricted further searches to Google Books only, as I realized that the previous searching had taken up too much time, and I had work to do.  “Two half-dozen” and “four half-dozen” make a few appearances.  Overall, in my completely amateur opinion, I can’t conclusively say that “seven half-dozen” is an error, though it certainly sounds unnatural to me.

[ Edited: 02 August 2012 03:27 PM by NotThatGuy ]
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