A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "umpteen"?

May 16, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the origin of the word "umpteen"? According to my dictionary, the meaning is "very many" or "indefinitely numerous." It just seems odd to include "teen" in something indefinitely numerous, why not umptwenty or umpeighty?

Why "umpteen?" Steve, at a time like this the words of the eminent philosopher Jim Ignatowski come to mind: "If you call an orange and orange, why don't you call a banana a yellow?" Why umpteen? Why not? According to the Oxford English Dictionary the colloquialism stems from a combination of "umpty," which stands for an indefinite number, and "teen," the series of numbers starting with thirteen. Umpteen is used to indicate an unknown quantity measuring many or several; usually the connotation is used to show irritation, as in "Cecil hasn't put out a book in umpteen months!" One of the earliest documented usages in in the August 1, 1919 edition of Athenaeum: "As 'umpty' means 'dash,' it is fairly evident that . . . 'umpteen' (or 'umteen') which means 'any number of times,' comes from this source."

For a truly interesting word origin, go back a few and check out "umpire." Make sure you have a good dictionary, though. Use this rule of thumb: if you can lift it without grunting, it's time for an upgrade. Like you haven't heard that umpteen times.

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