Lexiculture: eleventy

Julia Connally

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Connally, Julia. 2014.  Eleventy.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 3. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/eleventy.pdf

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The word eleventy originally referred to the number one hundred ten, and later achieved modest fame after it received mention in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. Today, eleventy is used primarily for hyperbolic purposes and to refer to punctuation overuse, especially on the Internet. How and when did eleventy become a tool for exaggeration? Who uses the word and in which contexts?

Eleventy is composed of the number eleven and the suffix –ty, which represents multiples of the number ten in cardinal numbers. In arithmetic, cardinal numbers are primitive or “natural” numbers and answer the question “how many” (for instance, one, two and three). Cardinal numbers contrast with ordinal numbers, which mark a position in a series (for instance, first, second, and third). The use of –ty stems from the Old English –tig, through a Germanic root that existed as a distinct word in Gothic (tigjus) and Old Norse (tigir), which meant “tens, decades.” [1]

According to Google Ngram, eleventy was used in print early in the nineteenth century. Charles Buck used eleventy in his book A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; a Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity; an Impartial Account of All the Principal Denominations…Together with an Accurate Statement of the Most Remarkable Transactions and Events Recorded in Ecclesiastical History (1818). Buck wrote, “In the eleventy century they were exempted by the popes from the authority established; insomuch, that in the council of Lateran, that was held in the year 1215, a decree was passed, by the advice of Innocent III. to prevent any new monastic institutions; and several were entirely suppressed.”[2] The use of “eleventy century” is not typical and likely reflects a typographical error for the word eleventh.

An identical error occurred in 1834, when Samuel Astley Dunham used eleventy in his book A History of Europe During the Middle Ages, Vol. IV. Referring to Anglo-Saxon poets, Dunham wrote, “So little has our ancient language been studied, that we have no critics capable of distinguishing the style of the seventh from that of the eleventy century…The first specimen is evidently from an Anglo-Saxon poet—of one hostile to the barbarous Danes, whom he calls heathens and pirates. It is the death of Brithnoth; a composition that must doubtless be referred to the eleventy century.”[3]

In 1854, Thomas H. Palmer used eleventy in its mathematical context in Arithmetic, oral and written, practically applied by means of suggestive questions: “…Forty-five from a hundred and forty-eight? [or eleventy-eight.] Seventy-two from a hundred and forty-eight? Thirty-six from a hundred and twenty-nine? [twelvety-nine]…[4]

In 1897, R.A. Brock, secretary of the Southern Historical Society, edited and published Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV. Page three hundred seventy-six of that book, a history of Confederate States of America forces, refers to P.B. Akers of the Eleventy Infantry of Lynchburg, Virginia. It is likely that in this context, eleventy was a typographical error for eleventh. The word eleventy does not appear elsewhere in the book.[5]

In 1921, Margaret Wilson published her short story “A Little Boy’s Utopia” in Atlantic Monthly. Wilson used eleventy to refer to an indefinitely large number: “No grown-up people, no babies, no girls. It was a world of boys, eleventy and a hundred strong.”[6]

In his 1917 novel The Job, Sinclair Lewis used eleventy in a hyperbolic context: “Oh, I dun’no’; you’re so darn honest, and you got so much more sense than this bunch of Bronx totties. Gee! they’ll make bum stenogs. I know. I’ve worked in an office. They’ll keep their gum and a looking-glass in the upper-right hand drawer of their typewriter desks, and the old man will call them down eleventy times a day, and they’ll marry the shipping-clerk first time he sneaks out from behind a box…”[7]

Printed use of eleventy was not common between 1900 and 1950. In the early 1960s, however, the word became increasingly popular. This phenomenon was possibly due to the publication in 1954 of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring. The book is the first volume in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and the sequel to his earlier children’s book, The Hobbit. In The Fellowship of the Ring’s first chapter, Tolkien’s iconic hobbit character Bilbo Baggins celebrates his eleventy-first, or one hundred eleventh birthday.[8]

In their book The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner suggest that Tolkien gave his hobbits “a practice used by our forefathers,” but that he may also have known of similar words in Icelandic upon which he based his fictional language.[9]

Tolkien’s books have sold about one hundred million copies worldwide.[10] His popularity prompted the publication of a number of books dedicated to his works. At least three were published in the 1970s, including The Middle-Earth Quiz Book (1979), A Tolkien Compass (1975), and The Tolkien Companion (1979). Each mentions Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday.[11]

According to Google, Internet groups and chat rooms referenced Tolkien’s use of eleventy as early as 1994.[12] In addition, the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, released in 2001, was enormously popular among theatergoers. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film remained among the top ten grossing films in the United States for thirteen weeks. It is estimated that The Fellowship of the Ring’s film version alone grossed more than eight hundred sixty million dollars worldwide.[13] The enormous popularity of Tolkien’s written and filmed works at a time when the Internet became increasingly accessible were likely the single greatest influence on eleventy’s presence in the English language.

Use of eleventy in another context, to indicate hyperbolic numerals, became popular in 2000, when the television comedy show Saturday Night Live aired a sketch in which the cast member playing actor Keanu Reeves competes on Celebrity Jeopardy. In the sketch, Reeves bets “eleventy-billion dollars” on Final Jeopardy, but fails to answer the question (“Just write anything”). When the cast member playing Jeopardy host Alex Trebek informs Reeves that eleventy-billion isn’t a number, Reeves replies, “Yet.”[14]

Eleventy-billion has since become a popular way among fashionable Internet posters to describe hyperbolic numerals. The use of the hyphenated form, however, appears to be distinct from the use of eleventy in a Lord of the Rings context.

Eleventy is also a trendy way to mock Internet posters who overuse exclamation points. Urbandictionary.com notes that “Since many people preferred using the Caps-Lock to the shift key, they would be unskilled with the shift key…and it would end up coming out as !!!1!!!!111!!!! or things along that line.”[15] Urban Dictionary also defines eleventy as “a fictional number used to describe an immense amount or the result of a cat walking across the numbers of a keyboard.”[16]

The website freejinger.org, which has about seven thousand two hundred registered members, also uses eleventy in its hyperbolic numeral sense, often to refer to families with many children. “These families all have eleventy billion kids, so I would think the lure of money would be more easily forgiven than looking at those evil, tempting womenfolk.”[17]

Free Jinger posters also use eleventy in its punctuation overuse context. They refer to Rebecca, a blogger with a penchant for exclamation points, simply as Rebecca Eleventy, sometimes with a string of exclamation points interspersed with the numeral one.[18]

Thus far, eleventy is primarily used by fans of The Lord of the Rings and by trendsetters. It has been proposed that in the future, eleventy will be used to refer to the decade from 2010 to 2019 (or more accurately, from 2011 to 2020). This is possibly due more to J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence than to widespread knowledge of eleventy’s numerical origins

References

Brock, R.A. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXV. 1897.

Buck, Charles. A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; a Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity; an Impartial Account of  All the Principal Denominations…Together with an Accurate Statement of the Most    Remarkable Transactions and Events Recorded in Ecclesiastical History. 1818.

Dunham, Samuel Astley. A History of Europe During the Middle Ages, Volume 4. 1834.

“Eleventy.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com. 23 Oct. 2013.

“Eleventy.” Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define/php?term=Eleventy. 26     Oct. 2013.

Freejinger.org.  http://freejinger.org/forums/viewforum.php?f=8. 23 Oct. 2013.

Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the     Oxford English Dictionary. 2006.

Google Groups.    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!search/eleventy%7Csort:relevance/alt.fan.tolkien/j9QAAsAI-lY/iBf96MJsXUIJ. 29 Dec. 2013.

Google Ngram Viewer. https://www.books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=eleventy&year_start=1800&year_ end=2000. 1 Nov. 2013.

Lewis, Sinclair. The Job. 1917.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).”     http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120737/.  29 Dec. 2013.

Palmer, Thomas H. Arithmetic, oral and written, practically applied by means of suggestive questions. 1854.

Shippey, Thomas. “The Hobbit: What has made the book such an enduring success?” The Telegraph. 20 Sept. 2013.

“SNL Transcripts: Tobey Maguire: 04/15/00: Celebrity Jeopardy.” Snltranscripts.jt.org.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2012.

Wilson, Margaret.  “A Little Boy’s Utopia.” The Atlantic Monthly: Volume 127, 1 Jan. 1921.


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary.

[2] Buck 335.

[3] Dunham 22-23.

[4] Palmer 36.

[5] Brock 376.

[6] Wilson 639.

[7] Lewis.

[8] Tolkien.

[9] Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner.

[10] The Telegraph.

[11] Books.google.com.

[12] Groups.google.com.

[13] Imbd.com.

[14] Snltranscripts.jt.org.

[15] Urbandictionary.com.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Freejinger.org.

[18] Ibid.

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1 Comment

  1. In the Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories comic books of the early 1950s, Br’er Bear would sometimes use the number “lebenty” and “lebenty-leben” to signify an unknown quantity–perhaps an unwitting numbering system with base 11?

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