What are we saying when we describe some quantity, some big number, as untold? The usage feels so great-grandparenty, as if it’s part of a generational idiolect we use with historical reverence if not real comprehension.
Standing on the platform of the Secaucus, N.J., train station, as one does, I found myself admiring the historical mural depicting the life of the state’s transit system.
An early panel (these are presented in tile form) celebrates the transport of anthracite coal (“Pennsylvania diamonds”) from the mines, across New Jersey, to “Hudson River yards and towns along the way.”
How much coal, more or less? Whoever scripted the text for the tile depicting coal transport settled on the descriptor “untold millions of tons,” deploying what most be the most common use of the uncommon modifier untold.
However much that is, it’s a lot of coal, from a time when it was there and when it was urgently needed.
But what about that untold? In the form unteald, the word stretches back to Anglo-Saxon, and means uncounted.
For centuries there have been usages of the word that hover over the sense of untold as not counted, or uncountable, or unknown. These are, of course, not precisely the same thing.
I guess I have an untold number of eggs in the fridge, since I haven’t counted them (but could). The number of digits in the numerical form of pi are untold in that they go on, mathematicians tell us, forever, so you can’t count them. At the least (and I’m not foolish enough to wade into the philosophy of mathematics, so bear with me), these are two different forms in which untold means “unknown.”
In a different register of meaning, a devout Roman Catholic might still, though less frequently than in centuries past, tell her beads when praying the Rosary. The beads are a tactile mnemonic, to move you through the long cycle of Hail Marys without losing count. Growing up in a family that skewed Catholic (though not very convincingly), I had a special delight in discovering what I was told were “worry beads,” those short prayer-less strings of smooth objects that offered endless cycles of digital fingering and the promise that stress would fly away.
But back to coal and that word untold (and yes, the amount of coal remaining in the earth is reliably untold, though there’s a lot less of it than there was in the coal-tarred 19th century). Like Lingua Franca readers, I’ve long known that untold means something having to do with quantity, not narrative.
Yet when I look at the word my first reaction is that an untold quantity is somehow an amount that hasn’t been confessed or narrativized. An amount that hasn’t — to use that oddball social-media neologism — storified.
At the very least, though, the quantitative descriptor untold millions isn’t just a number. It’s a narrative, a story that has yet to be, um, told.
Numbers are data, which are one kind of truth.
But not the only kind. Narrative offers a complement to data, not an alternative. When we read about untold millions, we can marvel at a large number (and maybe indulge in a moment when being a millionaire was unimaginably rare). Untold millions of people could be spared needless suffering if we had national health insurance for everyone. Untold numbers of refugees flee from the combustion enveloping their homeland.
Untold those tons of coal or siphoned millions or number of patients or stretches of refugees may be, but there’s a narrative — economic, personal, political, ecological — in each.
Knowing the numbers is critical. But it’s in narrative, not numbers, that there’s a chance for every one to count.