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Arts & Life

It's our umpteenth episode!


Numbers, unlike silly language, make sense. They have rigid rules and you can always understand the carefully constructed patterns. Eighteen is related to eight, fourteen is related to four. Umpteenth is related to...wait. What's an umpty?

“Umpty is an indefinite number,” says University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan. “Usually a large number, goes back to 1904. It represents, apparently, the dash in Morse Code.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word came about in 1918 as umpty plus teen, probably due to exasperated mothers yelling, "I've told you umpteen times take out the trash!"

But umpty isn’t out on a wall by itself. There is also bazillion, gazillion, and zillion.

Bazillion is just a play on billion that came around in 1939, and gazillion popped up in the 1970s. Bazillion might be older, but gazillion is more popular, and zillion even popular still.

There is no exact calculation of just how much these numbers represent. We just know it’s a lot.

But what about the number sign that has been dubbed the hashtag by Instagram lovers everywhere? Where did that come from?

“To explain it you actually have to explain the abbreviation, lb for pound,” says Curzan. “That abbreviation goes back to the Latin libra pondo, which meant pound by weigh.”

When the libra pondo generation wrote "lb" they sometimes put a horizontal line across the top, creating a hatch-like symbol.

“So you can see you have the vertical line for the l, the vertical line for the b, and then this horizontal line at the top, starts to look a little bit what we think of as a number line,” Curzan explains. 

This multi-lined sign eventually evolved into today's popular sharing tool.

So maybe the numbers don't quite follow the rules all the time, but we hope you will still join us for another umpteen episodes. #MichiganRadio #ThatsWhatTheySay #ThisSignUsedToJustMeanPound

Michigan Radio Newsroom - Cheyna Roth