In today’s Pardon My Planet comic, we see some pre-teen in a bedsheet dunning a dumpy pumpkin-possessing adult for a dump of candy; his line, in response to the adult’s pre-emptive guessing: “Why does everyone keep saying that! For the umpteenth time, I’m a mattress!”
OK, what’s wrong with this picture? To my eyes, it’s a pre-teen using umpteenth. It’s not that no one at all uses it anymore, but such a barely presumptuous exaggeration seems small potatoes indeed for today’s youth, used to living in a world of something like 7 billion people, where national budgetary gambits are measured in the trillions of dollars. We know we are in a universe with about 70 sextillion stars in observable range, and even the little easily loseable chip in my camera can hold more than 8 billion bytes of information – each byte being 8 bits, at that. Geez, when the word umpteen was coined, 8 bits was a dollar, and 8 billion dollars was an unbelievable amount of money, rather than about a ninth of the wealth of just one very rich person.
It’s not that large numbers were not used in prior times; 2500 years ago the classical Greeks often referred to the myriad and the Chinese to wan, both ten thousand; the Indians have long had a lakh, which is a hundred thousand, a crore, which is ten million, and even larger numbers. But consider that in The Maltese Falcon (1941) Joel Cairo offers Sam Spade $5000, and Spade says (sincerely) “Five thousand dollars is a lot of money.” In living memory a dime could get you a cup of coffee.
In England a century ago, which is when and where umpteen came into use, you could get into a fair bit of money before you needed to speak of a dozen of anything – after 11 pence was a shilling; although there were 20 shillings to a pound, you had crowns and assorted other intermediate amounts that kept you from often referring to more than a dozen shillings; as to a dozen pounds, that was a fair bit of cash – the equivalent of around a thousand dollars in today’s Canadian or American purchasing power.
Not to belabour the comparison, but to add illumination, consider that in the early 20th century Morse code was still being used commonly for communications – the original binary system, dot-dash, or, as those who used it sometimes called it, iddy-umpty (imitative of the dot and dash in signalling). Now we have phones and other media (including this one) that work by binary communication, but it’s ones and zeros, and they go several million times faster per one or zero. Even my sports watch manages a 2.4 gigahertz signal. That’s not umpteen iddies and umpties per second, that’s a zillion. A gazillion. A squillion. Not a googol, though, not yet.
But umpteen does seem kinda dumpy and dumb next to gigahertz, doesn’t it? It’s just lame. It lacks a certain umph. Heck, it’s a Morse code number. In fact, the ump in umpteen is from umpty – it’s a fill-in-the-blank-teen: if you don’t know exactly how many teen, so you want an umbrella teen term, and you don’t want to be silly and say eleventeen, you can present it as —teen, which is umpty-teen, or just umpteen.
Those of you who still use umpteen may take umbrage at this characterization, to be sure. No need to call an umpire to see if I’m making an ass with my umption: I use it sometimes too. But a pre-teen, still quasi-umbilical? Um, probably not.