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Dot and carry one

Q From C Sullivan: I was re-reading Treasure Island the other day, and there’s a line in it in which a character says his pulse went dot and carry one, seeming to mean in context, “skipped a beat”. Can you tell me more about the origin and usage of this phrase — the only other reference I could dig up online involved an old pulp fiction hero nicknamed Dot-and-Carry-One because he had an awkward gait due to having one leg shorter than the other. It seems the metaphor might have something to do with long division, but I’m not sure how that relates to the sense of hesitation or jerkiness.

A Dot and carry one is a rather dated British figurative phrase for a person with a limp. Such people may indeed have had one leg shorter than the other, though the first people to be called that, around 1775, had wooden legs:

Dot and carry one. Person with a wooden leg. The “dot” is the pegged impression made by all wooden legs before the invention of the modelled foot and calf. The “one” is the widowed leg.

Passing English of the Victorian Era, by J Redding Ware, 1909.

You’re right with your suggestion of long division, though it also relates to addition and subtraction. It refers to a way of doing arithmetic that was taught to children from the eighteenth century down into living memory. To dot and carry one means to set down the units in a column and to carry over the tens to the next column of figures. The method was to put one dot in the next column for every ten that you wanted to carry, as a reminder.

An early reference was in a book that tried to make learning the techniques of arithmetic more palatable by setting them to music. One stanza refers to the way to add up columns of money in pounds, shillings and pence (the carries are twelves here, because 12 pence made a shilling in old British money):

Still add to these the pence, sir,
On the left if you are willing.
And then mind when you be at the top right under D,
That every twelve’s a shilling.
The odd pence must go down, sir,
Or nought if you have none,
Or for every twelve that you had in the pence
You may dot and carry one.

A Little Young Man’s Companion, or, Common Arithmetic Turned into a Song, by N Withey, 1796. His reference to D is to the old standard symbol for pence, from Latin denarius, as in LSD, pounds, shillings and pence (hence “money”), where L is from another Latin word, libra, a pound weight (the British pound originally referred to the value of a pound weight of silver) and S originally stood for solidus, a gold coin of the later Roman Empire.

Another form at the time was dot and go one, which is explained by Captain Francis Grose in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785: “Generally applied to persons who have one leg shorter than the other, and who, as the sea phrase is, go upon an uneven keel.” He adds that the expression was also “a jeering appellation for an inferior dancing master, or teacher of arithmetic.” (Grose also mentions hopping-Giles as another slang term of the time for a person with a limp, St Giles being the patron saint of cripples. Another, later, term was limping Jesus.)

Your dot and carry one version, which became the standard one, was popularised by that giant of early nineteenth-century novel writing, Sir Walter Scott, in this work:

“That was his father — his father — his father! — you old dotard Dot-and-carry-one that you are,” answered the goldsmith.

The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott, 1822.

It’s easy to see how dot and carry one could have later taken on the idea of a hop and a skip or a missing beat.

Page created 5 Dec. 2009

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Last modified: 5 December 2009.