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Undetermined Scholars Confront Indeterminate Numbers

By Anatoly Liberman

The problem with modern etymology is that the words whose origin baffled our 19th-century predecessors may never reveal their past, for obvious solutions were discovered before 1900, whereas we are invited to fight the stubborn residue of human vocabulary. Some words have been coined since 1900, and here we might be expected to shine to advantage; yet we usually don’t. Strangely, we feel more comfortable while analyzing old words than those coined within recent memory. This situation is born of what may be called the paradox of increasing distance. A word recorded many centuries ago has a long history, and it is possible to say at least something about it. Perhaps it has certain or putative cognates in other languages, and we can venture a reconstruction of the protoform; or it has occurred in various styles, and speculation about its stylistic development is in order. But when you hear everybody around you begin to call a car dubs, what help may come from German, Dutch, or French, let alone Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin? The object of study casts no shadow in which the explorer can hide and rest. No protoforms, no interplay of styles, no nothin’. Dubs are dubs.

Words are like flowers. They grow on dung, and when they burst into bloom, no one cares for the origin of their roots, except etymologists and hundreds of people who send their questions to columnists and the hosts of talk shows. This post is about umpteen, oodles, and scads. A contributor to a Swedish linguistic journal wrote about umpteen in 1926: “It has to my ears exactly the ring of one of those numerous coinages that spring from nothing but sheer phonetic joy in creating words out of fanciful sounds or sound groups.” This statement resembles mine about dung and flowers but expressed in a more cultivated way. The aforementioned researcher proposed that umpteen is really um-teen, with um being “an unwilling or hesitating grunt or drawl, a sort of phonetic x, to which the suffix teen is added.” If so, um is the same syllable we have in the middle of thingummy and its facetious kin designating “a person or thing whose names one forgets or treats as unknown, what’s his name, what-d’you’call it.” This is not a bad explanation.

However, according to our best authorities, umpty, a synonym of umpteen, goes back to iddy umpty, the Morse expression for dot dash [._], which means “any number of.” Ump(ty) plus -teen, as in thirteen, etc., yielded umpteen. This etymology would look perfectly convincing if it had not left unexplained under what circumstances the technical term of the Morse alphabet spread to popular speech and what the origin of umpty is. Who coined it? The OED did not unearth any pre-1918 citation of umpty. Does it follow that we owe the universal knowledge of this word to telegraph transmissions during World War I? I will now quote a passage from an article written in 1942: “…back in the 80’s the well-known actor who played under the name Fred Leslie, and who helped to make musical burlesques at the Gaiety Theater in London so popular, convulsed the house when he rendered L 7.0.0 as ‘seven pounds umpty-umpty’. The jest caught on, and its reincarnation as umpteen, meaning ‘a good many’, which sounds like a derivative from umpty and preserves the nonsensical effect that was originally conveyed by Fred Leslie’s witticism.” The same author asserts that if um in umpty were a syllable expressing hesitation, it would hardly have appealed to anyone’s idea of the ridiculous, which umpteen does. Some slang words indeed spread from music halls, but it is surprising that Fred Leslie’s umpty found no reflection in humorous stories or cartoons for decades. As we have seen, no pre-1918 vestige of this word has been unearthed in printed texts. Umpty sounds like Humpty of Humpty-Dumpty’s fame with its h dropped. Humpty-Dumpty is an egg, and zeros in 7.0.0. are also eggs of sorts, but was this really the idea of the joke? If it were possible to combine the Morse explanation with Fred Leslie’s joke, we might perhaps learn how umpty ~ umpteen came about. At the moment, even all the OED’s men (and women) cannot put it together.

Still less can be said about scads and oodles, both of which first surfaced in American English. The hypotheses offered so far do not carry conviction. But it is a curious fact that the earliest citation of oodles in the OED (1869) runs as follows: “A Texan never has a great quantity of anything, but he has ‘scads’ of it or oodles or dead oodles or scadoodles, or swads.” Unlike those who have written on the origin of those words before me, I suspect that one etymology can explain both scads and oodles, for it appears as though scadoodle were cut into two, whereupon each part began to live a life of its own. It has been recognized for a long time that the verb skedaddle, which gained popularity during the Civil War (the earliest citation with it goes back to 1862), has the humorous variant skedoodle. Perhaps the original meaning of scad(s) and oodle(s) was “a quantity so great that even when it ‘skedaddles ~ skedoodles’ (that is, disperses), one still has enough left”? If so, scad and oodle are clipped forms of skedoodle, as Fred and Rick are clipped forms of Fredrick. On the other hand (linguistic reconstruction is a giant with many hands), the proximity of dates (1862/1869) and forms may be coincidental. The dustbin of etymology is full of bizarre guesses. I have no objections to adding my bit to that container.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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