13

Where does the saying

I've got your number

come from?

  • 1
    It means " I still know I'm better than you" or "I can beat you anytime" – user26848 Oct 3 '12 at 15:10
  • 1
    Interesting contributions! Seems to me all of these suggestions contain a common thread: the linking of "number" to identity. Interesting to note that the Spanish "nombre" means "name." One's identity is all caught up in one's name, and one's name is one's reputation. A name may be withheld for various reasons: because a stranger looking for someone in a bar always (or almost always) connotes bad news. The secret name of the Old Testament [name for] God is letters that are also words that imply no name but rather something greater than a name (JHWH-->"I am that I am"). Names and nombres and nu – user42204 Apr 10 '13 at 17:03
  • 42204’s Spanish nombre is so fascinating, it almost took my mind off the fact that in 60 years of listening, I’ve never noticed a suggestion of I've got your number including any hint of anyone being better or beaten. – Robbie Goodwin Nov 10 '17 at 19:08

11 Answers 11

7

I found this earlier use of the phrase from a political poem in Volume 7 of Punch, 1844, which might indicate a law-enforcement origin:

http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA261&dq=%22got+your+number%22&ei=MaEbTryfJ9S20AHvoazeBw&ct=result&id=40wPAQAAIAAJ#v=onepage&q=%22got%20your%20number%22&f=false

  • Interesting reference. The phrase's reference here does not seem to be like the 'to figure one out', but rather, literally a number, perhaps the 'buss' number, maybe the driver's license number or most likely, a reference to previous/ regular conviction record. Habitual offenders have 'dossiers' in police records and have permanent numbers assigned. – Kris Sep 29 '12 at 5:39
5

The OED associates it with the earlier phrase to take measure [of] ("to form an estimate of; to weigh or gauge the abilities or character of, or assess what to expect from"), which dates from the 17th century.

The earliest citation of get/take/have [one's] number is from Dickens' Bleak House, published in 1853:

Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I'm a child,’ that person is only a crying off from being held accountable, and you have got that person's number, and it's Number One.

  • 1
    Interesting usage. You'd pretty much have to say that Dickens wrote that in the context of familiarity with the pre-existing idiom, in order to make his sardonic observation about the primary interest of people who disclaim self-interest probably being themselves. So it must have been around in the vernacular before 1853, but not necessarily with such overtly negative associations. – FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 0:38
4

I doubt we'll find a definitive "first use", but here is an example from 1915 explicitly making the point that (for some people, at least) the expression was considered "yesterday's slang" even then.

In terms of the semantics, I doubt the origin owes much to actual house address number, telephone number, etc. I think it's a fairly transparent metaphorical usage, indicating that the speaker thinks he's successfully classified the person he's speaking to. And would therefore easily be able to put him into a hypothetical numbered 'pigeonhole', and know where to find him again later.

In most usages today, the expression means something akin to "You can't fool me", meaning the speaker has classified the other person as devious, self-seeking, and untrustworthy. So it's usually derogatory, which it wasn't necessarily in the past.

LATER: Fanciful, perhaps, but I'm quite prepared to believe Dickens's wry observation on the specific case of someone with "Number One" as his number (per @phenry's Answer) could have been influential in causing the expression to shift from positive/neutral understanding of another's primary concerns, to seeing through another's deceit.

  • "which it wasn't necessarily in the past." Isn't it unnecessary here? – Noah Aug 11 '12 at 6:49
  • 1
    @Noah:Some people might feasibly think my whole sentence there is a little "awkward", but analysing exactly why seems a bit complicated to me. A more acceptable phrasing would be "So it's usually derogatory, which wasn't necessarily the case in the past.". Trust me though, simply removing the word "it" would render my sentence completely unacceptable to all native speakers. – FumbleFingers Aug 11 '12 at 14:43
3

In Revelation 13:18 (KJV) we read:

Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

These words are usually thought of as pointing to some specific man who fits into the prophecy in the previous verses. You’ve got his number. It’s 666. Now, if you understand the prophecy, figure out who this man is. One popular interpretation in ancient times was that Nero Caesar was the man whose number is 666.

In ancient Greek and Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet also served as a numeral, and thus had a numerical value. Consequently every word, phrase, or name had a numerical value which was the sum of the letter values. And it was believed that one could learn something about the essence of a god or a man by looking at the number of his name, and comparing it to words and phrases that have the same number. This sort of numerology is called gematria if referring to Hebrew, and isopsephy if referring to Greek.

There is no guarantee that the idiom “I’ve got your number” has its origins in the ancient practice of gematria. But it seems pretty obvious that it might. And likewise for metaphorical language such as “he weighed his words carefully” or “he spoke in measured words”.

2

Etymonline reports that:

To get or have (someone's) number "have someone figured out" is attested from 1853.

Sadly it doesn't offer any insight as to how the phrase came about, but clearly it can't be related to telephone numbers.

2

My first-thought also points back to gematria. In this system, each word (thus name) has a numerical value. Correlated with this fact is the ancient practice of summoning (angels/demons).

Demonic signatures have a numerical value. That number derives from the numerological value of the seal used in the conjuration of the demon. By knowing this number, a magician has power over said demon, e.g. to summon them to do one's bidding. The most famous account of this still re-told today Legemeton that Solomon used to summon Asmodeus & build the First Temple in Jerusalem.

This assert of power, to compel a demon to do one's bidding, stems from the concept of True Name. YOu can think of this like using a name not to address the person, but to 'address' their soul or or fundamental, primary, essence.

The concept for this arises from the existence of same number-name correlation for angelic names. These true numerical names are thought to originate from the divine, as a kind of 'programming language' for the Creation.

From all of this later derived the Numerological lore of thinking that a system for calculating a number for a person's name had introspective power into their true nature.

2

The entry for "get someone's number" in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) agrees in its general contours with the information in the answers posted long ago by user1579 and phenry:

get someone's number Also have someone's number. Determine or know one's real character or motives, as in You can't fool Jane; she's got your number. This expression uses number in the sense of "a precise appraisal." Charles Dickens had it in Bleak House (1853): "Whenever a person proclaims to you, 'In worldly matters, I'm a child,' ... that person is only crying off from being held accountable ... and you have got that person's number." {Mid-1800s}

This summary offers a plausible account of when "get someone's number" began to be used in this particular idiomatic sense. Beyond that, however, are several instances of the phrase from before 1853 that may have served as antecedents to its idiomatic usage. Here are some of them, presented chronologically.

From Richard Bacon, A Memoir of the Life of Edward, Third Baron Suffield (1838):

October 3rd [1800].—Accompanied Lord St. Helen's to a Court ball at five o'clock, before which we were presented to the Empress Dowager, who received us well and conversed with some of us, which the Emperor omitted doing. The company danced the Polonoise, and about nine o'clock we were summoned to supper. Each gentleman and each lady drew a numbered ticket from a plate, without knowing previously what number they drew. These were in their turn called over at going out of the ball room, and the gentleman conducted the lady who had drawn his number, to the supper room. I missed my partner, but followed into the supper room, where I found two ladies who had both, owing so some mistake, got my number; these I was fortunate enough to sit between and attempt to entertain, but they both being dull and ugly, I executed my commission very awkwardly.

The sense of "got my number" here is literal, the number being the one written on the ticket drawn by the earl and on the tickets held by the two ladies.

From a dispatch to Lieutenant General G.L. Cole, dated June 2, 1818, in Arthur Wellesley, The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, volume 12 (1838):

I feel your partiality for your old number [the 23rd regiment], which also shall be gratified, if I can do it without hurting the feelings of others, who have already got your number. It is a symptom of the old spirit we had amongst us, than which we cannot have a better.

Here, "got your number" may refer to regiment number (the 23rd) or to the total contingent of soldiers in that regiment, with whom Lieutenant General Cole has had an enduring relationship.

From Hugh Legaré, Writings of Hugh Swinton Legaré, Late Attorney General and Acting Secretary of State of the United States, volume 1 (1846):

28th May [1833, written in Brussels, Belgium]. ... [I] Tell him [Jacob Irving] that Virginia has always been averse to hold negro slaves ; that Mr. Jefferson had, in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, inserted a clause, alleging the forcing these poor wretches upon the colonies against the will of these latter, as one of the motives of their separation from the mother country. He is struck with this ; begs me to state it in writing, that he may send it to Mr. Barrett, Speaker of the Assembly of Jamaica, who is now in London looking after the interest of the colonies. I tell him I had written an elaborate essay on the subject, in which my object was to state the case of the South fairly ; look for it, but find I have lent it. Tell him I will try to get it, and send it by Sir Robert's courier to Mr. Barrett's address. Takes his leave urging me to do so. Accordingly I send to Mr. Drury, who lets me have his number. I write a note to Mr. Barrett, anonymous but una salus, etc., envelope, seal and address the parcel to the care of Mr. Vail, chargé de affaires in London,—but after all do not send it.

In this instance, "have his number" appears to mean "possess his copy" of an essay that the memoirist had written.

From Richard Peake, H. B.: A Dramatic Caricature (1839):

Mrs. Funnel. (Opens letter.) What's this? (Reads.) "To Captain Funnel." "Sir"—

Funnel. Civil enough, whoever he is—go on.

Mrs. Funnel. (Reads.) "I am the editor of the new weekly publication, called the 'Farthing Exposer.' It has fallen to our lot to hear of the accident on the river to-day, occasioned by your carelessness"—

Funnel. What does he say?

Mrs. Funnel. (Reads.) "In running down the transport brig marked H.B."

Funnel. It's a lie.

Mrs. Funnel. (Reads.) We would willingly keep your name out of our paper, but a sense of public justice prevails, and unless you enclose half a sovereign under cover to our office, we must do our duty. We shall go to press immediately."

Funnel. You may go to the devil! I give you half a sovereign ; I'd see you buried at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs first. The brig run foul of me, but we shall have it out tomorrow at the Mansion-house—I've got her number and her marks. [Feels in his pocket and takes out a scrap of paper.

The number in "got her number" is presumably a unique identification number, comparable to a license plate number, assigned to any boat operating on the Thames (or other British waterways).

From "The Buss-Driver's Lament Over Bygone Days," in Punch (1844) [also cited in Callthumpian's answer]:

I've known the time, alas 'tis past! / When I might drive my buss / Through thick and thin, go slow or fast, / And no one make a fuss.

When we,—that is, myself and cad,— / Could o'er our pewters slumber; / But, stop an instant now, and, 'gad! / The p'liceman's got your number.

And here, the number is a unique identification number for a horse-drawn bus in London.


Conclusion

Of the instances of "got [or have] someone's number" in the foregoing examples, the ones that seem to me to be most probably related to the idiomatic use of the phrase to mean "know someone's real character or motives" are those that involve a number functioning as a unique identifier for a boat or coach.

An interesting early instance where obtaining such a "number" has threatening overtones appears in a song titled "The Humours of a Playhouse," which appears in The British Melodist; or National Song Book (1822). In this song the musical verses are interleaved with in-the-street conversations of the sort that might have been overheard outside a theater. One of the conversational interludes begins as follows:

(Spoken.) Coach to the City.—Coach unhired.—Four shillings to Hyde Park Corner.—Three-and-sixpence to Tottenham Court Road.—Want a coach, your honour?—Yes.—What number, sir?—One, to be sure, that's enough at once.—Coach to St. Mary Axe.—Are you, hired?—Ax about.—Take that fellow's number: take his number; he is the most impertinent rascal under all the Piazza.—Take my number, you may name too, if you like ; I'm saucy Dick, used to drive the long Isleworth.

It isn't difficult to imagine an unhappy passenger saying of the driver of a hired coach, "I've got his number. We shall see what the authorities have to say about him!" That, at any rate, seems to be the point of the passenger's urging, "Take that fellow's number: take his number," in the excerpt (composed no later than 1822) above.

1

There was BBC timewatch that stated that a 18teenth century shipbuilder had the numbers on workers' clothes and if he saw any slackers they were fired hence,`your number is up.

0

I have in my possession a book first published in 1927 called "I've Got Your Number," by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins, which was a self-help of book that used numbers to create a personality profile for men and women. The book was apparently very popular and continued in print till at least 1996. The book provides no explanation of how the profiles are arrived at. There is no way to say for sure if this is the origin of the term or merely an outgrowth of it, but I would suspect it may have had a great deal to do with the popularization of the term.

0

I have no idea where I've heard this first, last, or even how often - but I've heard it more than a few times as "You've got my number!" as in "You've got me" or "You know my weakness." In that context, it's more or less the same as "Well played, sir."

-1

A speculation on the origin of "I've got your number" is a military origin.

Ballistics, particularly, was a calculated endeavor. I've heard the expression "it's dialed in", or similar, used in relationship to ballistics – and in that context the 'dialing' is the adjustment of guns relative to angle-bearing dials (measures) that aid in precision for accurate shots.

There's an interesting similarity between having a shot 'dialed in' and, possibly, 'having the number' of the target.

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