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Crime novelist Donald E. Westlake wrote many crime stories under the pseudnym Richard Stark. In one novel, a character says he knew an old man was on his way out when he noticed "the elevens were up." Another character asks what that means and is told it refers to the (muscles? ligaments?) at the back of the neck which become increasingly obvious as a person's fat melts away as they lose weight.

Has anyone else ever heard of this phrase? I can't find it on the internet, although it seems plausible.
 
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Never.

WM
 
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I've never heard the phrase before, either, but I found it in a book by John McNulty (1895-1956). McNulty was a reporter for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s who spent much of his time in Costello's Irish saloon on Third Avenue, which he immortalized in his 1941 book, This Place on Third Avenue.

The phrase is explained in the above book, as well as in World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury by Mary F. Corey (Diane Publishing, 1999):

quote:
McNulty's chilling "Third Avenue Medicine: 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 alont 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 a man slow down on his drinking: this phrase will do when "no amount of lecturing" could. The other phrase, "the elevens are up," is something of a death kn0ll for old drinkers and is not said "to a man to his face at all." The "elevens" are the 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."

and in article by Freebird Books:

quote:
Costello's at 3rd Avenue and 44th Street in particular) for The New Yorker. Sadly forgotten--no Wikipedia profile--McNulty's pieces examined the bar culture that defined New York in the 1940s. In "Third Avenue Medicine" he discussed how bartenders' distinguished brands of hangovers. "The snake is out" denotes a throbbing vein or artery along the left side of a face belonging to a male aged late 30s/early 40s (my vintage) brought on by the usual means. When he's had enough, the barkeep looks him in the eye to alert him that the snake is out of his hole. Which is not to be confused with the far more sinister sign of the "elevens": "two cords on the back of the man's neck [that] have begun to stick out [resembling the number 11], the way they have never stuck out before." "Like a priest or a judge," the bartenders silently note that "the elevens are up" and said customer is not long for the world.

McNulty has no Wikipedia article, as mentioned above, but his wife, Faith McNulty does.

Tony Smith (1912-1980) was an American sculptor. Two of his sculptures, The Elevens Are Up, and The Snake Is Out, were based on McNulty's phrases.
 
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Thanks for the info, Tinman
 
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I've vaguely heard it, but when I searched I couldn't find anything familiar. So I waited for others to answer, but nothing really seems to ring a bell. So...I must be wrong.
 
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