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elevens are up

Posted: Sat Jul 23, 2011 3:12 am
by incarnatus est
Found in a bio of "Typhoid Mary"

Supposedly a common expression in 1902, in America.

A sign of impending death, referring to a pair of cords visible in the back of the neck when someone has a "wasting disease."

But is it true to anatomical fact? What anatomical structures are referred to here? And the history of the phrase?

Thank you, Hugh Gilmore

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Sat Jul 23, 2011 2:53 pm
by JerrySmile
I found a reference on it:

The world through a monocle: the New Yorker at midcentury - Pages 190-191
Mary F. Corey - 1999

It's not that much on the origin of it, though.

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Sat Jul 30, 2011 3:10 am
by incarnatus est
Cheers to Jerry Smiles


I obtained a copy of the book you referenced about the New Yorker magazine.

Sure enough, there was the reference to "elevens up."

I encountered the phrase when it was quoted almost verbatim, from a New Yorker article, without citation or reference, by Anthony Bourdain in his book "Typhoid Mary."

The phrase does not seem to have made it into any slang dictionaries.

But, anyway, thanks for the phrase origin sleauthing.

Hugh Gilmore

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 6:00 am
by Ken Greenwald
Hugh, ELEVENS ARE UP is really an interesting and puzzling phrase, which inspired me to see what else I could find on the subject. To review, it is a condition said to occur in older alcoholics who are near death and refers to two parallel protruding tendons on the back of the neck which look like the number 11.

As you, I had no luck in finding the expression in any slang/idioms … dictionaries. But, as far as I can make out, it is doubtful that the expression was ever a common expression in America – it appeared in print very rarely, and managed to somehow avoid being listed in any slang sources – not a characteristic of a common slang expression!

If the author of Typhoid Mary is to be trusted, an early appearance was in 1902 (as you found). The earliest example that I was able to come up with was from 1941 in McNulty’s (1895-1956) highly regarded This Place on Third Avenue. McNulty wrote for the New Yorker along with with his drinking buddy, James Thurber. According to McNulty, the expression flourished in the saloon/barroom subculture “on the seamier side” (e.g. 3rd Avenue) in New York City (where ‘typhoid Mary’ dispensed her gifts) and applied specifically to an alcoholic who was close to the end of the road. This book gave me the impression that the expression probably first appeared in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. But where and when the expression was actually born, I can’t say, although one source implied it might have been in India (see 2004 quote below). As far as the elevens go, these structures seemed to refer to tendons, but whether this is a real occurrence in dying alcoholics, again, I can’t say. So, I really can’t answer any of your questions – a lot of help I am!

Others have paraphrased and used quotes from McNulty’s books, including Mary F. Corey in her The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (see 1999 quote below). And I say ‘books’ because the 1941 book went through many printings, with some tweaking, till his death in 1956, the latest printing being from 2002. In his 1951 book (see quote below), A Man Gets Around, which was a different book entirely, he manages to also include his discourse on elevens are up (must have been one of his favorites).

The following 1999 quote from The World Through a Monocle sums up what McNulty had to say on ELEVENS ARE UP (also see Jerry’s above link) and another interesting related tasty phrase, THE SNAKE IS OUT:
<1999 “McNulty’s chilling ‘Third Avenue Medicine’ [[a chapter in This Place on Third Avenue]] was an examination of a kind of ‘medical observation’ practiced by Third Avenue bartenders. This entire diagnostic technique can be summed up in two phrases: ‘The snake is out,’ and ‘the elevens are up.The snake is out is a reference to the vein that runs along the ‘left temple of a man’s head,’ which is invisible until a drinking man gets into his fifties, when it ‘gets to acting up.’ If the bartender tells him to ‘take it easy . . . that only gets him sore.’ Not until the bartender tells him that ‘the snake is out’ will the man slow down on his drinking; this phrase will do it when ‘no amount of lecturing’ could. The other phrase. ‘The elevens are up,’ is something of a death knell for old drinkers and is not said ‘to a man to his face at all.’ The ‘elevens’ are two cords on the back of the neck, which, on an elderly alcoholic, stick out like two ones ‘making the number 11.’ The bartender says: ‘The elevens are up’ . . . quietly and sadly, like a priest or a judge,’ because the elevens denote fatal illness and ‘there’s not much more time.”—The World Through a Monocle: the New Yorker at Midcentury by Mary F. Corey, pages 190-191> [[The commentary is by the author and her quotes are from The World of John McNulty, his last book (see 1957 quote).]]
For McNulty's own words in this posthumous edition of The World of John McNulty (2002, first appearing in 1957) by John McNulty, Faith McNulty, Morris Engel, see here. This edition contains a foreword by his wife and comments by a friend.

The following quotes were found in archived sources:
<1941 See above 1999 quote.—This Place on Third Avenue by John McNulty>

<1951 “‘The elevens are up’ is as serious as anything could be, and there is no joke about it. This is not said to a man to his face at all. It comes about when there's been an old codger around for years and years, long enough to have arguments about is he seventy-one year old . . . A Man Gets Around by John McNulty, page 173>

<1957 “No sooner has he gone than those of his friends who are there—including the bartender, of course—look at each other. ‘The elevens are up, says the bartender, quietly and sadly, like a priest or judge or the like. ‘They are, they are!’ say the others, and they all nod their heads. That’s why they say ‘The elevens are up when it happens to an old codger. It means he hasn’t a chance, . . .—The World of John McNulty by John McNulty, page 84> [[published one year after his death.]]

<1991 “‘Pops ain't gonna be around long; his ‘elevens’ are up.’ ‘What?’ ‘His elevens! At the back of his neck. You see them two cords, stickin' out? They make, like, an ‘eleven.’ Once they're up that's it. He's a goner.’”—(movie) Life Stinks by Mel Brooks [[a New York City boy, 1926- , who probably read McNulty’s books and/or heard the expression himself.]]>

<1995 “. . . Sir Dennis said, ‘Years ago, in the United States, I was told a bit of American slang. The elevens are up.’ In fact the American Navy officer who told it to me was referring to President Roosevelt at the time.’ . . . ‘The tendons at the back of the neck,’ Sir Dennis explained. When they stand out like that, the man is dying.”—Kahawa by D. E. Westlake>

<2000 “These were the thoughts Clara clung to as . . . watching the way her husband’s brow furrowed . . . the blueness of his veins, the way his ‘elevenswere up—those two ropes of flesh that appear on a man’s gullet (so they say in Jamaica) when his time is drawing to a close.”— White Teeth by Z. Smith, page 41> [[The story takes place in the 1980s.]]

<2004 “‘The Elevens Are Up’ . . .[[1963 sculpture by T. Smith, see here]] . . . takes its title from a pair of muscles that swell on the back of the neck in reaction to alcohol (Smith struggled with alcoholism). Consisting of a pair of parallel, black-painted eight-foot square steel walls set four feet apart, the piece invites the viewer to walk through. But it denies him or her the possibility of peering over the top while doing so.”—

<2004 “. . . Eddie nudged me, pointed over to where Doc was sitting at poolside with his back to us . . . and murmured, ‘His elevens is up.’ It’s an old British colonial expression from the days of the Raj. What they meant was, when the tendons at the back of your neck stand out like a number eleven, you’re a goner. With a stab of sorrow I saw that Eddie was right; Doc’s elevens were up.”—Callahan’s Con by S. Robinson, page 282> [[Raj (reign/rule), especially British rule over India (1757-1947).]]

<2010 “‘But I got me a haircut at the barber shop last week, and I looked in the mirror, and I saw the back of my head in the other mirror behind me, and the elevens are up. You know what that means, Parker.’ ‘It means you’re finished,’ Dent said. Parker said nothing, but glanced at the back of Dent’s neck and the two tendons were standing out there, just as Dent had said. The elevens are up. When the number eleven shows in the tendons on the back of a man’s neck, he’s finished, everybody knew that. Parker didn’t waste time trying to lie to the old man.”—Slayground by Stark & Ardai, pages 10-11> [[The story appears to take place in current times.]]

Ken – August 15, 2011

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 7:42 am
by Erik_Kowal
Well, that's the last time I'm going to pause for elevenses.

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 8:53 am
by Edwin F Ashworth
What about second elevenses?

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 9:18 am
by Erik_Kowal
How can there be a second?

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 9:23 am
by Edwin F Ashworth
Either this man's dead, or his neck has stopped.

Ken continues to amaze with the depth and scope of his research.
Makes beyond our Ken sound paradoxical.

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Tue Aug 16, 2011 9:33 am
by Erik_Kowal
Edwin F Ashworth wrote:Either this man's dead, or his neck has stopped.
Is this a wind-up?
Edwin F Ashworth wrote:Ken continues to amaze with the depth and scope of his research.
Makes beyond our Ken sound paradoxical.
I doubt that even KenKen is beyond our Ken.

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2012 7:26 pm
by Filomena
I never heard this one before, thank for sharing!

Re: elevens are up

Posted: Mon Jan 23, 2012 11:35 pm
by Wizard of Oz
Erik_Kowal wrote:How can there be a second?
.. obviously you don't know any hobbits ..

WoZ at the round door