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I used the word umpty-flumph in a piece recently, in the sense of an indefinitely large number (“umpty-flumph years ago”) and was called to account by numerous readers who had looked it up online using Google and had found that the only result returned was in the piece I had just written, a nice self-referential example of a Googlewhack.

It wasn’t in any of the reference works I consulted but umpty-flump does appear online a number of times in the sense I used, so my memory wasn’t at fault, just my spelling. Both must be variations on the fairly common US forms umpty-umph or umpty-ump, which date back rather more than a century:

If I was setting on an iceberg in latitude umpty-ump north of Evanston these days, they couldn’t pry me off it with a crowbar.

Mr Dooley in Peace and in War, by Finley Peter Dunne, 1898.

This developed at the time of the First World War into umpteen and umpteenth. Umpty has also for many years appeared in compounds such as umpty-eleven or umpty-thousand. It works well in such cases because it is similar in form to number words such as twenty or thirty.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that umpty is a “fanciful representation of the dash in Morse code”, basing this on iddy-umpty, a military slang term of the early twentieth century for a dot followed by a dash. However, I’ve encountered examples from much earlier in which it was a nonsense syllable in poetry, for example as umpty-tumpty-tiddle-dee. This is the first example of its numerical use I’ve found:

Mechanically, he picked up the Daily Hear-All. A note attracted his eye. It read: “A reliable coachman at three hundred and umpty-five Fifth Avenue. “Three hundred and umpty-five,” soliloquized Mr. Braune thoughtfully. “Why, by Jove, that’s her number.”

Life, 30 Oct. 1884.

“The class of umpty-five” appeared in an American magazine called Outing in July 1892 (republished two years later in College Days by John Seymour Wood). These suggest that we should be very cautious about uncritically accepting the Morse code origin, since the second part of iddy-umpty may have been based on the older numerical or nonsense meanings of umpty.

There might be a link with Humpty-Dumpty, sometimes written ’Umpty-Dumpty at the time to represent unaspirated uneducated speech. In his Oxford Etymologist blog in October 2006, Anatoly Liberman quoted an article from a 1942 issue of the Swedish linguistics journal Moderna språk which asserted that in the 1880s the British music-hall performer Fred Leslie spoke the sum of £7 0s 0d as “seven pounds umpty-umpty”, where umpty might be a play on empty or a reference to the egg shape of Humpty Dumpty, in the same way that a batsman in cricket who fails to score is said to be out for a duck, short for duck’s egg.

A British children’s TV series of the 1970s was called The Flumps. My umpty-flump probably isn’t connected with it. However, one episode featured a character called Umpty Flump (a knowing pun, I’m sure) who was umpty in a different sense, that of feeling unwell. This is British slang first recorded in print in 1948 but possibly as old as the First World War. It means a mild indisposition such as an upset stomach. Its origin is unclear but it may be a different sense of the same word.

  “Please let me go,” she said pleadingly. “I’ve got to find the Doctor.”
  “Feeling a bit umpty,” said Daly sympathetically. “Not surprising after all you’ve been through.”

Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, by Terence Dicks, 1977.

Yet another British sense, of recent times, is give it some umpty, an encouragement to greater effort, in which the word means “power” or “vigour”. It’s presumably a variation on the older give it some welly, where the last word is a shortened form of wellington boot; the origin in this case may be the English pub game of welly wanging or welly chucking, in which contestants try to throw a welly as far as possible.

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Page created 11 May 2013