16

The German language has the term zig as a kind of affix to signal a following quantity as a unknown multiple of 10. Just like dutzend (dozen) signals an unknown multiple of 12.

For example:

Ich habe dir zig-mal gesagt, dass du deine Schuhe im Eingang ausziehen sollst!
(I've told you umpteen times, to take off your shoes on the entry!)

Wir kennen uns seit zig Jahren.
(We know us for umpteen years.)

However, I've heard multiple times that the following example, while perfectly fine in German, is incorrect in English:

Sie hat mit diesem Produkt zig-millionen verdient.

Which I'd translate to:

She had made umpteen millions with that product.

I got told that you can't put umpteen as a suffix before a discrete quantity (million).

Is this correct? If not, how to translate it properly?

Edit: The question is NOT about whether zig/umpteen is a good term to use in a formal context, but about the general use of an affix for unknown multiples of ten.

Edit: I replaced the third sentence, since I think the topic (deaths in war) is not appropriate.

  • 1
    Native German here - I would not write "zig-millionen Menschen starben" in a formal text either. It has the same degree of informality as "umpteen". – Stephie May 10 '16 at 8:58
  • 1
    Native German as well. "zig" is not formal, sure. However, the sentence itself is correct. – Sempie May 10 '16 at 9:12
  • 1
    Not a word-by-word translation, but English has the construct millions and millions. Still informal, but not as informal as umpteen. – MSalters May 10 '16 at 13:49
  • I'm not a native speaker so I don't have a good "feeling" for such idioms. Is "millions and millions" more likely 2-3 millions, or more likely 900 millions? – Sempie May 10 '16 at 13:55
  • 1
    It's more usual to hear "She had made untold millions with that product." but I don't know of any actual rules for usage for this rather than just common usage. – Zorawar May 10 '16 at 14:54
21

I don't know who told you that you can't use umpteen before million. M-W's Student Dictionary seems to disagree with that assertion:

umpteen (adj) numerous but not fixed in amount : umpteen million things to do

So, grammatically, I don't find anything wrong with your translation.

That said, umpteen is an informal word in English – note how Macmillan includes an INFORMAL label on its entry. It really depends on the context. If you are talking about how many people died in a war, for example, that might call for a more solemn word than umpteen.

However, there are cases where the word could work. If you are trying to express frustration and exasperation, umpteen might be a word that could do that.

In other words, if a student was writing a historical report about World War II, or a veteran was writing a dedication speech for a WWII memorial, I think:

Umpteen million people died in World War II.

would not be an appropriate sentence to use. However, if someone was giving an emotional plea for an end to hostilities, then I suppose that word might work:

Umpteen million people have died in this war – when are we going to have peace?

That use of umpteen essentially conveys, "too many to bother to count, but I'm not concerned with the exact number right now – when will we have peace?"

  • 7
    +1. Note especially that it's million, not millions as the OP assumes, when introduced by a numeral or numeral-like determiner: three million, twenty million, a hundred million, several million, umpteen million. (But, oddly enough, many millions of. I may ask a question about that on ELU . . .) – ruakh May 10 '16 at 14:11
  • 2
    zig is informal as well. – CodesInChaos May 10 '16 at 15:40
7

The word "umpteen" could be used in your context, however, it is not very broadly used when describing unknown number of people. English uses a plural form of a number to indicate "unknown multiple" as in:

Millions of people died in this war.

Tens of millions of people died in this war.

Dozens of people died in the train accident.

We can never know how many millions died in this war, but we can assume from 1,000,001 to 9,999,999 people died from the first example sentence.

You could also use "a few", "several" or "a couple of" to indicate a multiple number as follows:

A few million people died in this war.

A couple of million people died in this war.

Several million people died in this war.

After the edit:

Umpteen times or Umpteen millions (of dollars) are more idiomatic than umpteen millions of people.

  • 3
    -1. I've heard the word umpteen umpteen times. The register is informal. Compare "a gazillion". – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 10 '16 at 11:26
  • @TRomano Did you try Ngram for it? books.google.com/ngrams/… I am curious what your definition of "broadly used". Would you say "Umpteen million people died" instead of "Millions of people died"? Note that the question was modified and I would not have said it is not very broadly used for the revised sentence as the context is different. – user24743 May 10 '16 at 11:44
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    umpteen is very informal, so Ngram is not really a valid way to assess how often speakers use it. I agree with you that its register makes it inappropriate for serious matters like war fatalities, or the number of homes destroyed in a tornado. But it is very broadly used in casual conversation to refer to a large number. "I have umpteen things to do this week. It's the worst time for my car to break down!" I removed the downvote, since we meant different things by "broadly". – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 10 '16 at 12:14
  • @TRomano I edited my post while you were typing your comment. I agree that it goes better with "times" or "millions (of dollars)". – user24743 May 10 '16 at 12:17
  • As a small side note, the cap on the first sentence is not 9,999,999. – J.R. May 10 '16 at 14:04
7

It might actually be tens, although this is used rarely. When estimating numbers we often use the names for orders of magnitude (millions, tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds etc.). E.g.

I can't perform in front of that crowd, there's thousands of them!

By using these terms you're telling people that you're estimating, but also the approximate amount. It's roughly:

  • 13 - 19: umpteen (a number ending in 'teen')
  • 20 - 100: tens (or sometimes 'dozens'. A dozen is 12)
  • 200 - 1,900 (nineteen hundred): hundreds
  • 2,000 - 19,000(nineteen thousand): thousands
  • 20,000 (twenty thousand) - 190,000 (a hundred and ninety thousand): tens of thousands
  • 200,000 (two hundred thousand) - 990,000 (nine hundred and ninety thousand): hundreds of thousands
  • more than 1,000,000: millions

A teacher might say:

I can't go to the pub today, I've got hundreds of essays to mark.

But a teacher probably doesn't teach classes of over two hundred, so they might follow that remark with:

Well, not hundreds, but tens of essays.

Your first example looks a little more idiomatic, where zig is used for exaggeration. Here we would probably resort to hyperbole:

If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times; take your shoes off when you come in!

  • Not particularly what I asked for, but very helpful anyway. Thank you. – Sempie May 13 '16 at 11:57
  • @Sempie I'm glad you found it helpful. The answer might be that we don't have a direct equivalent, I don't know of a word in English that intensifies the next word. – AJFaraday May 13 '16 at 12:06
3

If I understand the meaning of "zig" correctly, I think the closest equivalent would be umpty: you can say umpty to indicate an indefinite number on the order of magnitude of thirty or seventy, such as "umpty-million." It's not used that much, but it would be understandable if you said something like

She had made umpty-million dollars with that product.

("She had made umpty-millions" sounds odd to me because "millions" is already indefinite by itself. With a plural, I would just say ""She had made millions" or, as AJFaraday mentions, you could use "tens of millions" to form a plural indefinite expression that is a bit more precise about the magnitude.)

Merriam-Webster gives the following definition and examples:

umpty:
such and such <umpty percent of all new houses — Kansas City Star, Missouri> —often used in combination <the umpty-fifth regiment — Bill Mauldin>

I think umpteen is more likely to be used for numbers between ten and twenty, on the order of magnitude of thirteen or seventeen.

  • Another handy imprecise term is zillions: Pinehurst is a fine place, known ... for its sunny climate, sandy soil and zillions of golf courses (John Myers); This way we don't have to spend zillions of dollars to build roads (Gene Logsdon). – J.R. May 10 '16 at 21:05
2

You could be after

Scores

Which implies an unknown multiple of 20, though it's quite old fashioned.

You could say

Scores of people died in the train crash

but you wouldn't normally say

Scores of millions of people died in the war

Umpteen is very informal, this is could be the first time I've actually seen it in writing.

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