DO A NUMBER.

My wife asked me out of the blue where the phrase do a number on ‘have a bad effect on’ (“That really did a number on me”) came from; I had no idea, and it seems the OED doesn’t either:

U.S. colloq. (orig. in African-American usage). to do a number (occas. to lay a number): to act with destructive force or impact; to criticize or humiliate; (hence) to have a strong, usually adverse effect. Freq. with on.
1967 H. LIT Unbelievable Dict. Hip Words 12 Do a number, to get mad; make a scene; to tell somebody off; blow your cool. … 1991 N. BAKER U & I vii. 119 When Ada finally did arrive, Updike did such a number on it in his review that he felt compelled to explain.. that he writes faster than he reads. 2002 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (Electronic ed.) 6 Dec., Navigating bumpy dirt tracks and completing hairpin turns often does a number on shocks, tires, belts and other parts.

Looking around, I discovered another interesting idiom, this one thoroughly obsolete: to lose the number of one’s mess ‘to die, to be killed’ (1807 in A. Paget Paget Papers II. 314 If we are going against Copenhagen many of us will lose the number of our mess). Idioms: can’t live without ‘em, can’t explain ‘em.

Comments

  1. Vance Maverick says:

    Patrick O’Brian uses the second one somewhere — making an association with the military sense of “mess” inevitable. So at a guess, “will lose one’s registration to eat with the other servicemen.”
    And for the first, “doing a number” suggests the stage, like “doing a song and dance”. Again flailing for plausibility, this seems to draw attention to the elaborateness of the doer’s performance — making a show of the victim, as it were.

  2. Giving you the third degree.

  3. RHHDAS (whose earliest citation is the same as the OED’s, Lit’s Dict.) agrees with Vance Maverick, saying “Cf. (5.a.), above,” that being the theatrical sense.

  4. The stage thing sounds plausible enough, as in to dance all over someone.

  5. David Himelright says:

    About once or twice a day I do a 2.

  6. i always thought doing a number had to do with a song/dance as well. something like they dancing on one’s grave… while they are still alive (?)

  7. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    How about the (British?) expression (sometimes, but not always homophobic) “I’ve got your number, mate”, meaning something like “your secret is out”; where does that come from, is it also from dance number?

  8. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    How about the (British?) expression (sometimes, but not always homophobic) “I’ve got your number, mate”, meaning something like “your secret is out”; where does that come from, is it also from dance number?

  9. AJP,
    hm, I’ve always thought this was a general (i.e. not homophobic at all) American idiom meaning “I know you very well” and that the number in question is a phone number.

  10. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Yeah, we’ve got your number, right? Bubul? You’re one of those watchamercallits, linguists, innit?
    That’s what I’m thinking of.

  11. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Yeah, we’ve got your number, right? Bubul? You’re one of those watchamercallits, linguists, innit?
    That’s what I’m thinking of.

  12. John Emerson says:

    I’ve heard the version “Do a number on your face”, “Do a number on your ass”. I generally had the feeling that it was some kind of boxing exercise or maybe a tap-dancing routine or drummer’s exercise.

  13. John Emerson says:

    I’ve heard the version “Do a number on your face”, “Do a number on your ass”. I generally had the feeling that it was some kind of boxing exercise or maybe a tap-dancing routine or drummer’s exercise.

  14. Patrick O’Brian uses the second one somewhere — making an association with the military sense of “mess” inevitable. So at a guess, “will lose one’s registration to eat with the other servicemen.”
    Cf. “handing in one’s dinner pail” as another euphemism for dying; in any case the implication is that the person described will no longer need to eat…

  15. Re: “I’ve got your number”, I would think that the number in question was some sort of identification number–”I know the truth about you”, i.e. the number represents the sum total of the subject in some way.

  16. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Conrad: the number represents the sum total of the subject in some way
    I think that must be it. What you’ve incurred and will have to pay for.

  17. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Conrad: the number represents the sum total of the subject in some way
    I think that must be it. What you’ve incurred and will have to pay for.

  18. michael farris says:

    For me, the American “I’ve got X’s (where X can be second or third person) number” means:
    “I recognize that X has quality Y (where Y usually but not always carries some social stigma) despite X’s attempts to conceal it.”
    The source of the recognition could be from past experience (I’ve dealt with X’s kind before) or commonality (it takes one to know one). It can either stress the experience/perceptiveness of the speaker or the clumsiness of X’s attempts to conceal Y.
    Adding ‘mate’ to it in American would be extremely bizarre. I’m trying to think of what vocative expression could be added and I’m not getting very far. Some possiblities (buddy, pal, friend) sound aggressive and/or dated while others (bro, dog) sound too slangy (and if I know them probably out of date too).
    Random digression change-of-topic: Do some American dialects generally avoid vocative or vocatve-like expressions (includng names) or is it just me?

  19. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Wasn’t thinking it was American, therefore mate no so bizarre.
    Where is Language? He’s been out all day.

  20. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Wasn’t thinking it was American, therefore mate no so bizarre.
    Where is Language? He’s been out all day.

  21. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Now I see. You’ve conflated Bulbul’s and my posts. President Bush is famous in England for shouting ‘Yo, Blair’, in Texas dialect.
    Do you think he’s all right? He doesn’t usually disappear like this. Perhaps he’s reorganizing his Amazon wish-list. I was thinking about Xmas presents (September, it’s time to begin), I was thinking we could club together and get him the Xóõ Dictionary, he could annoy his extended family through New Years by making click sounds. The poor soul doesn’t earn much from this blog, it’s just the advertising money from the Learn Latin Faster people.

  22. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Now I see. You’ve conflated Bulbul’s and my posts. President Bush is famous in England for shouting ‘Yo, Blair’, in Texas dialect.
    Do you think he’s all right? He doesn’t usually disappear like this. Perhaps he’s reorganizing his Amazon wish-list. I was thinking about Xmas presents (September, it’s time to begin), I was thinking we could club together and get him the Xóõ Dictionary, he could annoy his extended family through New Years by making click sounds. The poor soul doesn’t earn much from this blog, it’s just the advertising money from the Learn Latin Faster people.

  23. Note that the 1967 OED citation is for “doing a number,” not doing a number on, although other slang dictionaries agree with a 1960s African-American origin.
    Via Google News Archive, “doing a number on” seems to show up first around 1974. A number of the early reference are in sports writing.
    It seems to me “laying a number on” means approximately the same as “doing a snow job on,” or “pulling the wool over one’s eyes,” for example with a made-up story — so it differs from “doing a number on.” It’s what a con man does, and so it may derive from the vocabulary of con artists.
    There is also, from the 60s, “don’t lay your trip on me.”

  24. Do you think he’s all right?
    Just busy, I’m sure. But that’s the problem with his being such an excellent correspondent: every time I send him an email and he doesn’t get back to me within thirty minutes I start worrying that I’ve finally managed to annoy him.
    If you ever do really want to pool for anything, by the way, feel free to email me.

  25. Where is Language? He’s been out all day.
    I’m working, you bunch of layabouts! And no, I don’t need a fudging Xóõ Dictionary.

  26. I’m working, you bunch of layabouts!
    I resent that! I’m a manager, you know, I need a lot of time for creative forward-oriented thinking.
    And no, I don’t need a fudging Xóõ Dictionary.
    Your lips says no, but your eyes say ↓ŋ̊ʘʰ…

  27. John J Emerson says:

    I’ve emailed Mr. Hat enough times to have concluded that he picks up his hat mail about once a day, and every other day when he’s busy. He apparently has a life of some sort, which it would be wrong to hold against him.

  28. fimus scarabaeus says:

    in my squaddie days, doing a number was to get ‘ell out of ‘ere before ‘ell came raining its death in form of a mortar attack or just plain get lossed.

  29. michael farris says:

    “He apparently has a life of some sort, which it would be wrong to hold against him”
    You’d think that, wouldn’t you? Yet … I do hold it against him and I have the feeling I’m not the only one.

  30. He apparently has a life of some sort
    Life? Never heard of it. Where can I get it? Is there a crack?

  31. A Canadian hardware chain says: “We have your lumber”

  32. And the umbrella store next to it says “We have your bumbershoot.”

  33. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Seriously, if anyone feels like sending me presents, just email me and I’ll give you the address. I like books, but plain money is ok too. Food is good. No artworks, though.

  34. I always thought it was (Chicago ?) slang from mafioso hitman-types. Can’t find a source, but a google search “do a number on” & “mafia” shows they often appear together. Maybe a WWI soldier slang that moved to the street?

  35. Seems it could be related to “your number is up” or “I’ve got your number”.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Random digression change-of-topic: Do some American dialects generally avoid vocative or vocatve-like expressions (includng names) or is it just me?

    I personally do that (in all languages I’ve done any talking in), but that counts as idiolect…

    Your lips says no, but your eyes say ↓ŋ̊ʘʰ…

    LOL!
    BTW, it is — unsurprisingly — !Xóõ… retroflex click, [x], and long, nasal [o] in the high tone.

Speak Your Mind

*