Temporal Imprecision

The other day I saw an interesting usage in a discussion on Facebook in which someone wrote that they last did something back in “19 mumbly mumble”. It seems they didn’t want to be more precise about the year.

I’ve heard people doing this in speech before, mumbling the year they don’t want others to know, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen it used in writing like this.

Is there a linguistic name for temporal imprecision like this?

Does this happen in other languages? If so, how?

7 thoughts on “Temporal Imprecision

  1. I can’t think of a technical term for this kind of vagueness, but to me this looks like the language of comic strips. So Captain Haddock might say “neunzehnhundert brummel-brummel” in the German version of the Adventures of Tintin (“Tim und Struppi”). Real Germans are more likely to say something like “neunzehnhundert (und ein) paar Gequetschte/Zerquetschte”, ‘nineteen hundred (and a) few squeezed ones’.

    See also https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflektiv for uninflected German verb roots originally used in 19th century comic strips by Wilhelm Busch and a few other authors, which are now frequently seen on the internet and function almost like emojis.

  2. P.S. It is interesting to observe that, because the English words “to inflect/inflection” translate to “flektieren/Flexion” in German, the potential English term “inflective” would mean the exact opposite of the above-mentioned German “Inflektiv”.

  3. Simon, it sounds the the description you are looking for is “vague and evasive”, or trying to “say” something without fully “saying” it. The expression “30-something” comes to mind, where a person might say they are “30-something” when they don’t want to actually say how much MORE than 30 years old they are, to evade admitting that they are “old”.

    Other types of temporal imprecision that come to mind in describing things that are uncommon, while avoiding an exact description of the relative rarity, are “once in a blue moon” and “once in a month of Sundays”.

  4. Hi Simon, Polish has a couple of linguistic tools to convey numerical vagueness:
    1. “Kilka”, which means “several, a few” (more than 1 and less than 10), can be extended to “kilkanaście” (anything from 11 to 19), “kilkadziesiąt” (this is an indefinite number of tens), “kilkaset” (an indefinite number of hundreds) etc. So “kilkanaście lat” would mean “more than 10 and less than 20 years. The endings “-naście”, “-dziesiąt”, “-set” are the same as for cardinal numbers, e.g. 17 “siedemnaście” and so on.
    2. “Któryś” (declinable), which means “any one (of several)” can be used to mean “n-th”. For instance, “rok dwa tysiące dwudziesty któryś” would mean “year 2020 + nth”, i.e. later than 2020 and earlier than 2030. “Rok tysiąc któryś setny” would be “year 1000 + n-hundredth”, e.g. 1500, 1900 and so on.

  5. In Brazilian Portuguese you can say “Eu nasci em mil novecentos e bolinha” – literally “I was born in nineteen hundred and little ball.”

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