George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jan 18 20:57:23 UTC 2007

        "Forty-eleven" is an impossible number, therefore an impossibly big
number.  It seems to me that I first encountered the expression in a
blues song, very many years ago; in any event, I have had the notion
that it was an expression used by black people.  Which indeed it seems
to be, but the second item below is from a story by no doubt a white
author, and the character who speaks is no doubt white.
        I don't see it in tbe OED or HDAS; didn't check DARE.
        It has a long history, since my first cite is from the 1830s and my
last, a variant, from a play written in the 1980s or 90s, though set in
the 1960s.

        [Cornelia Latting, a young colored woman, sentenced to 2 years, 6
months; she tells the court] that she did not care a d--n if they had
sent her up for forty-eleven years.
        New York Transcript, February 15, 1836, p. 2, col. 4

        I never go into one [a toy store] without wishin’ it was Christmas once
a week, and I had forty-eleven children to buy toys for.
        S. Annie Frost, “The Daffodils Prepare fot a Fancy Fair,” Godey’s
Lady’s Book, July, 1866, p. 52, col. 2  (Proquest's Amer Periodicals)

        [He will] go back to London and join the forty eleven colored actors
who are now located and settled down in amalgamation row never to return
to America.
        Chicago Defender, June 17, 1911, p. 1, col. ?  (Proquest's Chicago

        Well, I don't even care/ If my baby leaves me flat/ I got forty 'leven
others/ If it comes to that.
        Josh White, "Evil-hearted Me", in The Josh White Song Book, Chicago:
Quadrangle books, 1963, p. 51.  White says he learned the song from
Blind Blake, who was recording in the 1920s.  "Forty-eleven" doesn't
appear in Michael Taft's Blues Concordance (
nor does he include "Evil-hearted Me".  It appears that White recorded
it in 1944.

        They was out there pouring whiskey on the grave... had two five-gallon
buckets full of dice and fifty-eleven decks of cards they dumped in the
grave with him.
        August Wilson, Two Trains Running.  Act 2, scene 2.  I saw a
performance o this play a few weeks ago, and caught this expression on
the fly.  I quote it here from the recent database of Afro-American
plays, the title of which I forget.
        The second and third items above I found by searching Proquest's
Historical Newspapers for "forty-eleven".  Until I heard Wilson's play I
hadn't realized that there were variant formulas and I haven't searched
for other base numbers.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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