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What is the origin of number as another word for a song or dance?

For example:

And then, when Astro came out to perform his sing-off against Ms. Francis for the right to stay in the competition, he gave the judges and the studio audience a bucketful of attitude. He said he didn’t think he should have to perform. Then he asked the audience if it wanted to hear him do a number (which, of course, it did). And he rolled out a less-than-his-best rap over “Never Can Say Goodbye.”.

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    The number is a musical number. From the NOAD (def. 3)—"a song, dance, piece of music, etc., esp. one of several in a performance". Do a number is not the idiom here, but simply number.
    – zpletan
    Mar 26, 2012 at 18:59
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    Carlo_R You should edit your question by adding those details. And @zpletan is correct. If that is what you meant, which I didn't realize, then this isn't about an idiom at all. There is a different usage for "do a number" which means "to deceive". Now that is an idiom. Mar 26, 2012 at 19:09
  • @FeralOink And I just made a fantastic answer explaining that idiom! Grr....
    – Daniel
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:21

2 Answers 2

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Do a number on stage means perform a number, where number means:

14. a single or distinct performance within a show, as a song or dance: The comic routine followed the dance number.

The etymology of this usage of number is (Etymonline):

The meaning "musical selection" is from vaudeville theater programs, where acts were marked by a number.

Imagine a program for an evening's entertainment:

I: An Evening in Venice

II: Gondola Suites

III: Maria

Etc, etc, etc

If you were on Gondola Suites, you would refer to Maria as "the next number".


As the question was initially unclear as to which idiom was meant, my original answer had to do with the idiom do a number on. I kept the original, in case it's interesting:

Ngrams shows that the expression to do a number on something (meaning to act with destructive force or impact; to criticize or humiliate - OED) probably began to arise around 1970 (I turned smoothing to zero on purpose):

Here's an example:

Our politicians, as you know, can really do a number on each other.

I checked the context of the pre-1976 occurrences, and the 1900s hump is a fluke. I also don't know about that 1950 bit, but by the contexts cited, I'd say it arose in the late 1960s.

As to the evolution of the phrase, dictionaries and references are chary of suggestions, either not including the phrase, not including any etymology, or saying origin unknown. Yahoo Answers sports some brazen and insupportable speculation, as is its wont; there isn't much to see.

Here's my speculation: do a number means perform a song or dance. The Synonym Finder (1978, Google books) lists do a number on as a synonym for mock:

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On would be in the sense of:

12. with respect or regard to (used to indicate the object of an action directed against or toward): Let's play a joke on him. Write a critical essay on Shakespeare.

So doing a number on someone means performing an act based on someone - mocking someone.

From mocking someone the meaning morphed to humiliating someone, and then, more generally, to hurting someone and even destroying something (as in you're really doing a number on that sandwich!).

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  • I thought that too, but this is what the question was truly about english.stackexchange.com/questions/62371/… Mar 26, 2012 at 19:14
  • OK, now it's more to the point, but I'm not discarding my research on the other idiom - just pushing it to the end ;)
    – Daniel
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:32
  • It's a good and interesting answer ... even if it's not what the OP wanted to know!
    – Jay
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:40
  • Musically I would think it could extend further back to numbered classical pieces such as Bach's Cantata no. 211, also known as BWV 211. Other composers used similar cataloging. Mar 26, 2012 at 21:57
  • @Jay Agreed! Haven't seen chary before either. It is a perfectly chosen word. Mar 26, 2012 at 23:02
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And then, when Astro came out to perform his sing-off against Ms. Francis for the right to stay in the competition, he gave the judges and the studio audience a bucketful of attitude. He said he didn’t think he should have to perform. Then he asked the audience if it wanted to hear him do a number (which, of course, it did). And he rolled out a less-than-his-best rap over “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

It's not a phrase. You just parse it wrong. Here, a number is:

8) (countable) A performance; especially, a single song or song and dance routine within a larger show.

For his second number, he sang "The Moon Shines Bright".

Therefore the original text, "do a number" simply means "do a performance" = "perform".

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    Yes, but what is the origin of the usage?
    – zpletan
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:23
  • @RiMMER: I agree with you: 'do a number', also in my language, simply means 'do a performance'. But, as zpletan said, what is the origin of the usage? In my language ('fai un numero') there is not an origin, thus I think it derive from the translaction of english "do a number".
    – user19148
    Mar 26, 2012 at 20:06

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