The children asked what ‘umpteenth’ meant. They asked because the word appeared in How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, page 118.
I told them about how it doesn’t mean a particular number, just rather a large one. Rather like a gazillion. I told them that Umpteen is made up (and therefore a lot more useful than many real numbers). I played to my strengths and looked up the history of umpteenth and we learned that the original word was umpty, which probably came from the word used for dash in Morse Code (the dot was iddy; these may have been derived from the sounds the clicks make).
I couldn’t help thinking about how convenient it is to be able to refer to large numbers abstractly. Today is my umpteenth birthday, for example. Or, if I wanted to refer to it in ancient Israelite terms for ‘large unspecified number’ I could have told you I am 40 today. You may even want to believe that. Both can be true. (If you want to know more about indefinite and fictitious numbers Wikipedia is a good place to start).
I study the Old Testament and found umpteen references to the number forty. A lot of people take these to mean literally forty, but I don’t. Forty is just a convenient large number. For really large numbers, a thousand could be used, and for small indefinite periods of time three was just as convenient.
So we’ve got the usual suspects: Moses on Sinai for 40 days and nights, the 40 years in the wilderness, peace in the land for 40 year intervals, various 40 year reigns (David, Solomon, Joash) and there are quite a few others. It is all just too convenient for me. I’m much happier with the New Testament accounts of Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the desert and the 40 days from the resurrection until the ascension because they are written in a different context (although I’m happy to be shown to be wrong on these too).
Where the biblical writers didn’t know the numbers, they put in forty to mean ‘an unspecified long period of time’. They could have put ‘umpteen’, but there is no word for that in ancient Hebrew.
So next time you have a birthday and you aren’t inclined to reveal your age, you could just say you are ‘umpty’. Especially if you have good balance.