A lot of numbers have a corresponding word that's a synonym. Some, like pi, have remained well known. Others like a "brace" for two or a "score" for 20, are little used now, especially in the business context. One old-fashioned number word that you'll still encounter in business is a gross, a quantity meaning 144 of a given item.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
A gross is a quantity meaning 144, or a dozen dozen, and it's a useful number for small items.
It's Hip to Be Square
If you're familiar with the mathematical concept of square numbers, that'll give you some insight into why products are often packaged and sold in certain quantities. For example, six packages of batteries to the carton and six cartons to the case means you just keep multiplying your basic unit – in this case, the packages of batteries – to arrive at a final count. Products packaged in tens, similarly, become cases of 100 for ordering purposes. Ordering one gross means you want a dozen dozens of your item, or 12 squared, which follows the same logic.
Dozens Have Deep Roots
Counting in dozens is a habit that goes back thousands of years to the mathematicians of ancient Mesopotamia. They worked with a powerful – if cumbersome – system of math based on the number 60, which is why we still have 60 minutes in an hour and 360 degrees in a circle. Twelves were useful because they multiplied easily into 60s and were easy to count by hand. If you count the knuckles on your fingers, beginning at the base, you have a dozen of them. If you use the knuckles of your other hand as counters as well, you can keep track of a dozen dozens pretty easily without having to write anything down.
It's a Really Useful Number
Part of the reason for the ongoing popularity of the dozen is that it's a really useful number, largely because it can be divided so many ways. Imagine for a moment you're dividing cookies between a number of kids. If you've bought a dozen cookies, you can divide them evenly between two, three, four or six kids, or even five if you keep a couple cookies for yourself. If you mentally change those cookies to ink cartridges and the "kids" to workstations, that logic applies to your office as well. Buying or selling products in gross units is equally useful for the same reason.
Not Too Big, Not Too Small
For a lot of products, a gross is a good number to have on hand. Obviously, you won't order cars or heavy machinery by the gross no matter how large your fleet or your factory, but small items are different. It's a common quantity for promotional items, such as pens and refrigerator magnets, for example, and for various novelty items. Almost anything small enough to be stocked and used in bulk, and inexpensive enough to be purchased that way, can be packaged or offered for sale in quantities of a gross.
There Are Other Grosses
Although it's less common, you may also see a couple of other variations on the gross from time to time. One is called the "small gross," and it's a quantity of 10 dozen. On the other hand, you might also encounter a "great gross," which is a dozen gross or 1,724 in total. In short, it's 12 cubed rather than 12 squared: The base-12 equivalent of going from 10 to 100 to 1,000 items. It's not a term you'll encounter a lot, but it might come up occasionally if you sell or buy merchandise by the dozen or the gross.
- University of Hawaii at Manoa Mathematics Department: Mathematics in Ancient Egypt and Mesapotamia
- Dictionary.com: Gross
- Dictionary.com: Great Gross
- Noveltees Company: Painted Frogs (Sold by the Gross)
- Grobet USA: Pegas Wood Sawblade, Pinned Skip 5", Sold by the Gross
- GetPersonalizedPencils.com: Overruns and Misprints
- gallon container image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com