Sunday, 6 February 2011


I don't have an OED subscription, so this info is cobbled together from not super-trustworthy bits of internet, but I like it: umpteen is a WWI-era compound coining made of 'umpty' - telegraphers' slang for an indefinite number (having originally been Morse for a dash; not sure how it made the leap to 'indefinite number'*) + teen.

* Morse was taught to native troops in India as iddy-umpty (dot-dash) based on the sounds they made when being tapped out.


Jenny Davidson said...

A. adj.
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An indefinite number, used in the sense ‘many, several’, etc.
1918 Blackwood's Mag. Mar. 290/1 Men from five continents and umpteen colonies.
1922 Public Opinion 11 Jan. 48/2, I entered into it and prepared to drop umteen floors.
1930 J. B. Priestley Angel Pavement ii. 82 I've got umpteen things for him to sign.
1973 K. Giles File on Death ii. 39, I leave business to the Estate managers, six of 'em with umpteen clerks and typists.

1918—1973(Hide quotations)

B. n.
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Such a number in the abstract.
1919 Athenæum 1 Aug. 695/1 As ‘umpty’ means ‘dash’, it is fairly evident that‥‘umpteen’ (or ‘umteen’), which means ‘any number of times’, comes from this source.
1923 Daily Mail 3 Sept. 1 (advt.) Umpteen to umpty Fahrenheit, Wolsey keeps you comfy, quite.
1976 A. Price War Game i. viii. 141 A potential offender against section umpteen of the Road Traffic Act.


The Morse code; a dot followed by a dash in Morse code. Also: an army signaller.
1906 Punch 24 Jan. 60/3 An ‘Iddy Umpty’ Idyll.
1914 Daily Express 15 Dec. 4/5 To see men practising the ‘iddy-umpty’, as they call it, with the back of a sheath-knife on the top of an empty tobacco-tin in lieu of a regulation ‘dummy-key’.
1924 Glasgow Herald 23 June 10 For my sins of commission and of omission—as far as the worship of that fetish ‘Iddy-Umpty’ was concerned—I became for a time an inmate of the great signalling camp at Swanage.
1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 126 Iddy (or Itty) Umpty, an expression first used in India in teaching the dot-and-dash Morse system to native troops. An ‘Iddy Umpty’ in that way came to be used as a term for a signaller.
1994 Observer (Nexis) 6 Mar. 24 ‘Umpteen’‥had its origin in ‘iddy-umpty’, a facetious version of the Morse code dot-dash popularised in the first decade of this century.

Robert Hudson said...

Excellent work, Not So Secret Agent Davidson.