Q&A: The origin of “umpteen”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're getting ‘umped' up…

Q: Hi AWC, can you explain a number for me?

A: What’s the number?

Q: Umpteen.

A: Umpteen?

Q: Did I stutter?

A: No, you did not.

Q: I’m referring to when people say they’ve seen a film “umpteen times” or announce that “this is the umpteenth attempt without success”.

A: Got it. Despite displaying the qualities of a number, you’re unlikely to find “umpteen” in any maths text books. 

Q: I didn’t think so. What about dictionaries then?

A: Oh yes, you’ll find it in those. Essentially, it’s an adjective that takes the place of, as Macquarie Dictionary puts it, an indefinite, especially a very large or immeasurable, number.” America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary is even more succinct, defining it as very many : indefinitely numerous”.

Q: And “umpteenth”?

A: Simply a variation – also an adjective. While “umpteen” typically describes an indefinite number, “umpteenth” is used for the latest in an indefinitely numerous series. 

Q: So, “there have been umpteen attempts” versus “this was the umpteenth attempt”?

A: Yes – exactly that.

Q: So, why the whole “ump” thing? Where did that come from?

A: Good question. It seems to date back to 1905 – and the word “umpty”.

Q: Didn’t he have a great fall?

A: You’re thinking of Humpty Dumpty, who really shouldn’t have gone around sitting on walls in such a fragile state.

Q: What an egg. A large waste of the King’s resources too!

A: Quite. But, this “umpty” had nothing to do with clumsy eggs. In fact, it was related to Morse Code.

Q: Because only ‘numpties’ can understand it? Beep bip bip beep beep beep. Hahaha.

A: It was actually very important in its day. Anyway, the word “umpty” was originally Morse Code slang for “dash”.

Q: What was the slang for “dot”?

A: Iddy.

Q: But why these words?

A: Apparently “iddy” was an approximation of the sound the machine made when transmitting a dot and “umpty” was the same for a dash. Soldiers learnt them this way – much like the “tick” and “tock” of a clock. “Iddy umpty” went on to become an affectionate term for Morse Code.

Q: Fascinating!

A: Yeah, it is.

Q: But how does this slang marry with today’s meaning?

A: There is some debate about exactly WHEN “umpty” took on the definition of “an indefinite number” – some say it even predates all this Morse Code stuff. But, one thing that is certain is that it seems to have come into its own a decade later during World War 1. 

Q: I always thought it was clever how they knew to add a “1” on the end of World War – like they knew it was the start of a franchise.

A: What? No! It was only renamed after World War 2. At the time, it was usually just called ‘The Great War’ or even ‘The War to End all Wars’.

Q: That last one didn’t age well.

A: It did not. Anyway, Merriam-Webster quotes a book during this time and its battle-weary character announcing “I'll go to bed and I'll not get up for umpty-eleven months.” Its form played off words like twenty or thirty etc, to give it a humorous uncountable quality.

Q: Makes sense.

A: It’s even thought that the rise of the word “umpty” played a part in naming the Northern Territory town of “Humpty Doo” here in Australia!

Q: Wow. And what about “umpteen”?

A: Officially, it dates back to 1907, but again, likely took hold as a more versatile adjective version of “umpty” during the war. “Umpteenth” was an easy step from there.

Q: So I guess for them, saying “umpty” or “umpteen” was similar to how we might say “gajillion” or similar today?

A: True. Although, of course, unlike all those who fought in World War 1, “umpteen” is very much alive today.

Q: Oooh, that got a bit dark.

A: Sorry. “Umpty” is rather rare these days – listed only in some dictionaries. But you’ll still find plenty of examples of ‘umpteen’ or ‘umpteenth’. For example, “This is the umpteenth Marvel movie they’ve released this year.”

Q: Or, “I ate an umpteen amount of figs for breakfast and need to go now.”

A: Rather specific, but sure.

Q: No, I actually did. I really do need to go!

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