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Re: Did a number

Posted by Smokey Stover on March 01, 2008 at 21:00:

In Reply to: Re: Did a number posted by ESC on March 01, 2008 at 11:52:

: : I'm looking for some definition for the phrase, "did a number." I've heard it used in synonymous fashion with total consumption and demolition. For example, "Wow! You really did a number on that grouper sandwich."

: One reference says it dates back to the 1960s and originated in Black English. ("Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches," second edition, edited by Christine Ammer, Checkmark Books, New York, 2006. Page 104) A second reference also says it dates to the 1960s and originally meant "to deceive" but later softened to mean "'to affect' though usually in a devious way." And that the first meaning derives "from the old vaudeville days, when acts were called numbers because they were numbered on theater programs. The meaning evolved from an act to a pretense and then to an outright deception." ("The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File, New York, 1997. Page 207. If I was guessing, I would have said it had to do with a con.

You will find discussions of "do a number" if you enter that phrase in the search box at the top of the previous page. The conclusions are that when you have done a number on someone else you may have conned him, that is defrauded him or tricked him in some way. Another meaning, unrelated to the first, I imagine, is that you injured him. In the latter case, it can be either personal or impersonal. "Your pal did quite a number on your face." Or: "The corn shredder did a number on his arm, which he carelessly used to unjam the machine." Or, you can "do a number on a grouper sandwich," meaning to do it such injury that there's little or nothing left of it.

If someone is putting on a show or display of emotion or excuses or some such, one can say someting like, "When the boss asked him why his division performed the worst, he put on a real song-and-dance number." I can't think of many good examples of this use of "number," so I presume it's not very common, although "song-and-dance" without the number is common enough. "I asked him why he hadn't called me in three months, and he went into his usual song-and-dance routine."