Idioms using numbers that do not actually have numerical meanings
February 19, 2018 7:31 PM   Subscribe

What are some English (or, why not, other language) idioms that use numbers but do not rely on the exact numerical figure for their meaning? Examples: one-horse town, six of one/half-a-dozen of the other, four-eyes, the whole nine yards...

So I work in technical translation, and we have a handy tool that checks whether the target text has the same numbers in it as the source text (no one wants to do this by hand for an 800-page catalog). The other day the tool gave me a false positive for the Japanese idiom 腹八分, which literally means something like "8/10 stomach" and is translatable along the lines of "eating moderately without stuffing yourself".
A colleague and I started giggling and tried to come up with the maximum use of numbers in a Japanese phrase that do not actually mean numbers (for the record, we settled on 四国で、髪を七三に分けた二枚目が腹八分に五目茶はんを食べていた、which contains the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 and means something like "a handsome man with a side parting was eating a moderate amount of fried rice in Shikoku").
Then I started wondering about similar expressions in English, and apart from the examples above couldn't come up with as many. (I know "one-horse town" started from "a town so small it only has one horse", so the number does have a meaning, but you couldn't translate it meaningfully into another language using the number; you'd say "the sticks" or something. Etc. etc.)
Give me some examples! If you have some in other languages, give me those too!
posted by huimangm to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
one eighty out (military slang)
four one one (dialing 411 for information)
a hundred and ten percent
posted by dilaudid at 7:42 PM on February 19, 2018


Three sheets to the wind

Dressed to the nines (Might be the same as the whole nine yards though)

Five-alarm fire

To eighty-six something
posted by good in a vacuum at 7:42 PM on February 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Double or nothing.
posted by clawsoon at 7:44 PM on February 19, 2018


Five-alarm chili.
posted by clawsoon at 7:45 PM on February 19, 2018


69.
posted by clawsoon at 7:45 PM on February 19, 2018


Queer as a three dollar bill.

This just means something strange. I don’t think it was originally a reference to gay people. The point is that three dollar bills don’t exist.

Wiktionary also cites queer as a nine bob note. I assume those don’t exist either.
posted by FencingGal at 7:46 PM on February 19, 2018


420.
posted by clawsoon at 7:47 PM on February 19, 2018


23 skidoo.
posted by FencingGal at 7:48 PM on February 19, 2018


ten-four, good buddy

to deep-six something
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:48 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


A stitch in time saves nine.
posted by peacheater at 7:49 PM on February 19, 2018


Thousand-yard stare

Doubling down
posted by good in a vacuum at 7:50 PM on February 19, 2018


90 pound weakling

800 pound gorilla
posted by good in a vacuum at 7:54 PM on February 19, 2018


Here are lots of English idioms with numbers.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Seventh heaven.
posted by silentbicycle at 7:57 PM on February 19, 2018


Well that's no fun Pater Aletheias!
posted by good in a vacuum at 7:58 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


five by five
posted by tan_coul at 8:03 PM on February 19, 2018


tan_coul: "five by five"

Do people use this idiomatically? 5 by 5 refers to signal strength and clarity on a scale of 1-5. So receiving 5x1 would be strong but garbled and 1x5 weak but clear.
posted by Mitheral at 8:11 PM on February 19, 2018


A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

Five finger discount.
posted by Temeraria at 8:23 PM on February 19, 2018


Forty winks
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:38 PM on February 19, 2018


Dressed to the nines.
Watch your six / I’ve got your six.
Four eyes
Five head
posted by bilabial at 8:47 PM on February 19, 2018


Do people use this idiomatically?

Faith, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, used it all the time. I hear it sporadically here and there. It always makes me pause a little since in ham radio land we use RST instead, which has different scales, a different order, and one more number. Hooray for "standards".
posted by traveler_ at 9:28 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


tan_coul: "five by five"

Do people use this idiomatically?


yes
(oh hi traveler_ was just writing this comment as you posted yours :p )

On cloud nine.
posted by solotoro at 9:30 PM on February 19, 2018


Three dog night
At sixes and sevens
Six feet under
One-upmanship
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:54 PM on February 19, 2018


four on the floor?
posted by tenderly at 10:47 PM on February 19, 2018


Full/Whole nine yards
Check your six [o'clock]/I got your six
posted by billm at 10:53 PM on February 19, 2018


Five o'clock shadow?
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:23 PM on February 19, 2018


In Swedish, sjutton (17) is a very mild expletive, kinda like darn I guess.

ja, för sjutton – yes, darn it
Vad sjutton sysslar du med? – What the heck are you doing?
posted by Vesihiisi at 11:34 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


En el quinto pino in Spanish (by the fifth pine tree) means in the back of beyond.
posted by Wilder at 11:41 PM on February 19, 2018


Baker's dozen
posted by SLC Mom at 11:43 PM on February 19, 2018


To be at 6s and 7s
posted by Gotanda at 2:59 AM on February 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Catch-22!
posted by phatkitten at 3:55 AM on February 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


0 dark 30 (also, in the wee hours? wee isn't a number, but it means small)
1 step forward, 2 steps back
1 night stand
2 by 4 isn't 2"x4" and can also means generic stud shape, or a generic blunt object
3rd times the charm
strike 3
8 days a week
20/20 vision, or hindsight is 20/20
24 by 7 (by 365) to mean always available
50/50
I say "100 percent" sometimes when I really just mean "I agree."
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 4:36 AM on February 20, 2018


A couple old ones: penny candy, going like 60. I'd also include "millionaire".
posted by SemiSalt at 5:04 AM on February 20, 2018


You may want to look at Brewers Dictionary of Phrase And Fable
posted by Enid Lareg at 5:53 AM on February 20, 2018


Putting in your two cents
Giving someone the third degree
posted by aimedwander at 6:25 AM on February 20, 2018


A baker’s dozen

Elevenses

For all Swiss German speakers out there znüni and of course zvieri
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:39 AM on February 20, 2018


Keep it 💯[100]
posted by Rock Steady at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


In english : to have two left feet
In bulgarian: баба знае две и двеста. (Grandma knows two and two hundred. i.e. she knows a lot of useful tricks!)
С две думи ( in two words. i.e. "in short,...")
posted by hannahelastic at 6:56 AM on February 20, 2018


You people are awesome! I've marked a bunch of best answers that particularly pleased me, but they're all great; this thread now looks like a remarkable translation test or a bunch of flash fiction prompts.
I'm surprised at how many of these I have specific associations with, either from books or real life. All at sixes or sevens is a song from Gilbert and Sullivan, five o'clock shadow is an old friend from college with a heavy beard and a tendency to forget to shave, five by five is, as traveler_ pointed out, Faith from Buffy (although I had no idea of its derivation--also, in unrelated news, tan_coul, I love your username), and forty winks is, of course, Orinoco Womble.
I'm going to have to start saying "What the seventeen is going on with that?" and so on too; that is a delightfully random pseudo-cuss word.
A million thanks!
posted by huimangm at 7:09 AM on February 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Eighty-six / eighty-sixed (verb)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:38 AM on February 20, 2018


Victor Borge’s Inflationary Language bit, strictly speaking, contains no answers—but I feel like it belongs here anyway.
posted by musicinmybrain at 7:49 AM on February 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


* Number one guy (or girl)
* She's a ten
* May the Fourth Be With You

While "sweet sixteen" and the Spanish "quinceañera" both relate to years, they're less about the years than the cultural shift of teenage girls entering womanhood; you couldn't just translate the terms into other languages to get the meanings across.

List of number idioms, some of which have been mentioned here. Some of the ones I like are:
* Fifteen minutes of fame
* a dime a dozen
* Joe Six-Pack
* eleventh hour
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:54 PM on February 20, 2018


Playing second fiddle
posted by yuwtze at 3:39 PM on February 20, 2018


six ways from Sunday
nine while nine
posted by iamkimiam at 3:40 PM on February 20, 2018


"put two and two together"
posted by twoplussix at 11:05 PM on February 20, 2018


Nineteenth hole.
posted by Kattullus at 2:10 AM on February 21, 2018


Behind the 8 ball
posted by plep at 5:39 AM on February 21, 2018


In Chinese (Shanghainese), saying you have two of something can mean any small number, not literally two. Similarly, there is a word that means ten thousand, and saying you have ten thousand of something means you have lots of it or infinite amounts of it.

Saying someone is thirteen points means they're silly.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:17 AM on February 21, 2018 [2 favorites]




Feel like a million bucks
Hundreds and thousands for sprinkles, say on a cupcake
Three's a crowd
posted by thebrokedown at 9:32 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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