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October 23, 2014 6:14 PM   Subscribe

How and when did referring to a woman as a "number" become a euphemism?
posted by Heatwole to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give an example of what you mean?
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:16 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like, "whoa, she's a 10"?
posted by phunniemee at 6:17 PM on October 23, 2014

Or do you mean "Wow, she's one hot number!"
posted by jacquilynne at 6:20 PM on October 23, 2014

Do you mean literally the word "number"?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives meaning 6.b of "number" as "A person, esp. a girl or young woman. Freq. with modifying word. Also: spec. a sexual partner". The earliest usages given are:

1919 Dial. Notes 5 70. Hot one, hot number, used as a term of disgust. ‘You're a hot one I must say.’ New Mexico.
1936 L. C. Douglas White Banners xvi. 343 "She's an odd number... I rather fancy she wears a hair shirt herself."
posted by Pink Frost at 6:20 PM on October 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

I.e. "Where did you find that number?"
posted by Heatwole at 6:22 PM on October 23, 2014

The movie, wasn't it?
posted by Chitownfats at 6:35 PM on October 23, 2014

Phunnieme, I was not clear.

Jacquilenne, exactly what I meant, thanks.

I'm sorry Chitownfats, what movie?

My wife suggests that it's shorthand for how men have always ranked women. Possibly, but I think I've heard it used in movies from the Forties and haven't tracked down a reference. I took on a wild theory of maybe referring to pin-ups based on the page that they were on. Lame, now that I've written it out.

The O.E.D. is always good for half of the story, so thank you. I want to dig a bit deeper.

Anything anecdotally or historically? Bingle fails me.
posted by Heatwole at 7:23 PM on October 23, 2014

I mark from the movie "10" with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:25 PM on October 23, 2014

I think it's used in the same sense as "musical number." Like a theatrical shtick.
posted by null14 at 8:21 PM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Via escabeche:
Chalk Dust: A Play in Three Acts - Harold Asa Clarke, Maxwell W. Nurnberg, S. French, 1937 - 98 pages. Below quote from page 47 if you happen to have it.

Brown. Who-me?
Doozek. Sure, you got her. I bet she's a hot number.
Brown. Go on-she don't use no rouge or lipstick or nothing hardly.

Using horse racing lingo to refer to women? Plausible? As in, that Man O' War is a hot number? Transferable?
posted by Heatwole at 8:24 PM on October 23, 2014

Null14, interesting. Are you able to cite?
posted by Heatwole at 8:31 PM on October 23, 2014

Interesting question. Here are some other meanings that I've heard. Maybe not specifically to answer your question, but just to point out that the word "number" has been used all over the place and I don't think it's disrespectful toward women, if that was the issue. It expresses enthusiasm if anything.

Cars: Look at that little Italian number she's driving.

Clothing: she was wearing this little black number

A marijuana joint

A love affair: "I did a number with him last year."

On the other hand, "They don't know him at all; he's just a number to them."
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:56 PM on October 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

My guess was that it might be synecdoche, where you prefer to the whole of something by one of its parts (i.e. calling a car "wheels"), and in turn, the number would be her phone number.

Second guess along the same line: numbered dance tickets

Some other numbers include "he really did a number on me" and "I've got your number" (which is almost certainly phone or address-based, I'd say).
posted by Sunburnt at 9:16 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with null14. I used to watch a lot of old movies with my grandmother. When that phrase came up in context the association with music seemed obvious, even to me as a little kid.
posted by klanawa at 9:29 PM on October 23, 2014

JimN2TAW: no doubt that it's used in an enthusiastic manner. I'm unclear if it's used in a demeaning or a complimentary figure of speech. Like anything else perhaps it is how the party in question accepts the context. However, it seems that the phrase is often used without the subject being present.

JimN2TAW & Sunburnt both: great theories to throw into the mix. Is there a definition for a word that has so many conceivable notions that any definition could be shoehorned to make sense? All together another question.

And again Null14 with klanawa: the musical association is making some sense to me. It has an innocent & complimentary connotation. Sometimes though it seems to be used in an unsavory reference.

In the context of the word "number" in referring to a woman as one (heh), what is the etymological background?
posted by Heatwole at 10:10 PM on October 23, 2014

I have spent more time looking through the OED entry for "number" than I ever imagined I would, and I've concluded that "number" has enough disparate and vague definitions to basically mean "thingy."

The definition of "number" as song or section of a musical work, which null14 mentions, dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
1865 tr. L. Spohr Autobiogr. I. 72, " I now expected that..all those ‘Numbers’ in which Titus has to sing, would be omitted."
The musical definition eventually described any regular theatrical act:
1908 K. McGaffey Sorrows of Show Girl ii. 30 "I've got to roll my hoop and do a shopping number."
But around the same time,"number" was also used figuratively in the sense of "to have or make an accurate assessment of a person's true character, motives, weaknesses." OED cross referenced "measure," which was used in a similar way in the 17th century. The first instance is from Dickens in 1830
1853 Dickens Bleak House lvii. 550 "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."

So the original "got your number" predates phones, is probably unconnected to street addresses, and seems to refer to the essential character of person. I wonder if that connection came from the Victorian fascination with phrenology, which tried to identify morality and intelligence through head measurements.

As Pink Frost noted above, the use of "number" to refer to desirable female seems to start in the early 20th century. But the OED notes that it was also "[u]sed" generally (and freq. humorously) to refer to any person or thing (identified more precisely by context). Freq. in little number."
1903 A. H. Lewis Boss 205 "That's a nice number to hand a man!"
1938 Amer. Home June 26/1 "There is the little number of wood or metal and canvas known as a ‘director's chair’".
The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English claims the phrase "hot little number" originated in the 1940s and means "what one wants," with illustrative quotes referring to cars, dresses, and girls.

IANLH (I am not languagehat), but I wonder if the word's association with music and theater, which might have lead to its mid-20th century phrase "a hot little number," often used by bandleaders and DJs to promote a song, popularized that colloquialism. At the same(ish) time, other definitions both identified the real character of a person and, later, when applied to women, depersonalized and belittled their "character" by lumping in with other object to be coveted and possessed. As we well know, that definition still applies to women for many.

But seriously, I'm just an insomniac English teacher/librarian with access to the OED. Maybe a wizard did it.
posted by bibliowench at 11:35 PM on October 23, 2014 [18 favorites]

I think this may derive from cabaret where an MC would introduce each performer onto stage for their 'number'
posted by Lanark at 3:06 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

number as the measure of man/woman obviously goes back at least to Shakespeare
posted by ennui.bz at 3:26 AM on October 24, 2014

"A hot number might be construed to be an attractive woman (or maybe a fancy car or speedy computer) but in 1919 when the phrase first applied to a woman it was a term of disgust. That according to Dialect Notes published by the American Dialect Society."
posted by misha at 9:46 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

To add to the non-sexist phrases using it:

They really did a number on him- he can't even see out of his left eye.

Those leaf miners did a hell of a number on my cabbage crop this year- I only got half a cabbage out of it!
posted by small_ruminant at 2:36 PM on October 24, 2014

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