I came across the phrase, “tame the infinite” in the following sentence of the article of New York Times (May 4) Travel column, titled “Easy China, 3 Ways”:

“For the first-time visitor to China, planning a trip to the most populous country on earth can be an exercise in trying to tame the infinite. Where to begin? Since most people will be flying into Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai, we suggest basing yourself in one of these three cities, each in its own state of frenzied transformation.”

I guessed “tame the infinite” means “It’s a very difficult question like challenging the infinite of mathematics” from the context of the sentence, and checked the phrase with Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster online dictionaries to make sure of its meaning. None of them registers “tame the infinite” as an idiom. Google Ngram shows no incidence either.

I found however, the book written by Kim Stewart, titled “Taming the Infinite - the Story of Mathematics” on amazon.

Does the use of the phrase (an exercise / attempt /plan to) “tame the infinite” by the New York Times writer suggests that the phrase is getting currency as a popular phrase or trendy expression?

  • Great question! As always +1
    – user19148
    May 6, 2012 at 9:10

2 Answers 2


I have no way of knowing for sure, but I wonder if the Times reporter was familiar with Stewart's book (or at least the title of it), and simply liked the idiom.

A Google search reveals only 5,000 hits for "tame the infinite" (as opposed to well over 100,000 for "tame the lion"); Google books finds only a very finite 100 or so hits for the expression. Moreover, most of the time, the expression seems to be put into a mathematical context, not applied to more everyday tasks such as travel planning or housecleaning (although my wife and I would probably both tell you that it's a great expression to describe housecleaning).

However, once the West embraced zero, mathematicians began to tame the infinite...
(Charles Seife, Zéro: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea)

So, I would conclude that the idiom is not popular and widespread yet. That said, every idiom has its origin, and maybe this one is about to catch on. Every mighty river starts as a trickling stream; every raging forest fire starts as a small blaze. In ten years, the expression "tame the infinite" might even sound trite, but today it sounds rather fresh. If it ever becomes stale and overused, though, at least I'll be able to remember when it first started catching on.

  • For instance as an application of this phrase, If I say “the Palestinian territorial issues is an effort in trying to tame the infinite,” can it be understood, or is out-of-groove expression? May 6, 2012 at 9:58
  • @YoichiOishi: 10-4. Copy. I read you loud and clear. That's an excellent example of how the phrase could be applied, and would be well-understood.
    – J.R.
    May 6, 2012 at 10:00
  • @YoichiOishi: In light of our other conversation, I'll parse my comment more carefully. By "10-4. Copy." I mean that I understood your Palestinian comment very well; the meaning of the embedded "tame the infinite" idiom is very clear and easily understood. As David Schwartz has astutely pointed out, "10-4. Copy." does not answer in the affirmative, so I'm not saying, "Yes, you can use it that way" when I say "10-4." However, my last sentence "That's an excellent example..." indicates my answer to your Yes-or-No question is a hearty YES.
    – J.R.
    May 6, 2012 at 23:35
  • I think I’m pretty clear with what you mean. I first thought to tag the question to your ‘10-4’ onto your above comment, but chose to post it as a separate question, considering the limit of allowable space of the comment box. By doing so, I got 3 detailed answers from respected EL&U users and 10 more comments including your’s in the ‘10-4’ associated question, all of which were unavailable otherwise, and are valuable and informative to me. Thanks for your kind follow-up. BTW, I'm amazed at your fast track of Reputation record. May 8, 2012 at 2:29

No. "Tame the infinite" is not an idiom, and your research does not suggest either that it is a popular phrase or that its popularity is increasing.

In the article you've quoted, the reference is to the overwhelming amount of information that tumbles out when you start planning your trip to a place like China.

Contending with this information overload is what the sentence implies by 'taming the infinite.' It is almost literal (almost because though huge, the data is afterall, finite.)

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