Posted by ESC on November 22, 2003
In Reply to: I've got your number posted by James Briggs on November 22, 2003
: : As if to say, "I know what you're up to" or "I've got my eye on you" - where did "I've got your number" originate?
: Perhaps from knowing the number of the house where the person lived? Remotely, the telephone number, but I think the phrase is older than the telephone.
Brewer's has the expression but no origin.
TO HAVE SOMEONE'S NUMBER - "To understand them closely; to have an insight into their thoughts, actions, and character." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).
"'Telephone numbers' were first used in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1879 during a measles epidemic, when a local doctor feared that the four operators might get sick and any substitutes would find it difficult to learn names and connections of the subscribers. By the late 1880s 'telephone number' was shortened to 'number'." "Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley" by Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997).
Here's another theory. The expression might have its origins in the military:
TO HAVE ONE'S NUMBER ON IT - "An expression used by members of the armed forces to refer to a bullet or other missile destined to hit a particular person, since it is supposedly marked by fate for their extinction." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).
ONE'S NUMBER IS UP - "In the American army a soldier who has just been killed or has died is said to have 'lost his mess number.' An older phrase in the Royal Navy was 'to lose the number of his mess.'" ." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition). "One is in serious difficulty or close to death. This phrase was first recorded in the early 1800s, but somewhat later it became widely used in the Royal Navy and U.S. Army, where it signified losing one's mess number because of being killed." From "Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and other Combative Capers" by Christine Ammer (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, Ill., 1989, 1999).