Where do expressions using numbers come from?

This article is about the origins of phrases and expressions that involve numbers.

 An 1898 poster by O’Galop of Bibendum, the Michelin Man, making a toast. (photo credit: O’GALOP/WIKIPEDIA)
An 1898 poster by O’Galop of Bibendum, the Michelin Man, making a toast.
(photo credit: O’GALOP/WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go” is a rhyme that has existed since the 1800s. Children use it as a starting point before beginning a race or other type of activity. So it is an appropriate way to introduce this article, which is about the origins of phrases and expressions that involve numbers.

“No. 1,” “A one,” and “one of a kind” are phrases that refer to something or someone’s being unique or top of the line. The opposite of that would be “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” That metaphor for someone who causes trouble for others is said to date back to 1340 with the proverb, “A rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor.”

Music and dance

A good example of a bad apple is a two-timer. The term often refers to someone who deceives a significant other by having an affair. If the unfaithful person lies about it, he or she would be described as “two-faced.” But “it takes two to tango,” so the trysting partner would be complicit as well. That phrase originated in the song “Takes Two to Tango,” composed in 1952 by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning.

Another type of dance, the two-step, consists of two steps in the same direction onto the same foot, separated by a joining or uniting step with the other foot. The Texas two-step is danced to country music, while on the ballroom floor it’s called the foxtrot.

 The 7-Up Bottling Company building in Portland, Oregon. (credit: THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKIPEDIA) The 7-Up Bottling Company building in Portland, Oregon. (credit: THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKIPEDIA)

In the world of entertainment, a performer who can dance, sing, and act is considered a “triple threat,” and in football it refers to an athlete who’s adept at running, kicking, and passing.

Battlefield and farming

On the battlefield, a genuine threat to life and limb might be “three on a match,” an expression that dates back to World War I. If three soldiers smoke together after dark and light their cigarettes with the same match, the extended illumination time could expose them to enemy fire.

In another type of field, shepherds or farmers might experience a “three dog night,” a phrase that refers to very cold weather. When a thick blanket isn’t enough to keep warm, rural dwellers might take their pet dog into bed for additional body heat. Chilly nights call for one dog, cold snaps call for two, and freezing weather necessitates three dogs.

In such a case, “Two is company, three is a crowd” would not apply. On the contrary – three would be a comfort. However, in social situations, the odd man out would be regarded as a “third wheel.” That phrase refers to the spare wheel for a bicycle.


Another type of “spare tire” is the excess body fat that is stored around a person’s midsection. That extra weight might come from enjoying the fare at many a fine restaurant. In the dining industry, three is the magic number. The height of excellence for a restaurant is to receive a three-star Michelin rating. In that regard, tires and food are directly related.

In France in 1900, brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, founders of the Michelin Tire company, wanted to create a greater demand for cars, so they compiled the Michelin Guide for motorists. It contained maps and instructions on how to repair and change tires, as well as a list of restaurants, hotels, mechanics, and gas stations along the country’s popular routes. The guide soon extended farther afield, with the list of restaurants attracting particular attention. The first Michelin star ratings were awarded in 1926. In 1931, the system was expanded to two and three stars.

Today, the Michelin Guide evaluates restaurants in 23 countries and is sold in 90 countries around the world, or “the four corners of the Earth.” That expression dates to the time when it was believed that the Earth was flat. However, some people say “the four corners of the globe,” which makes no sense at all. But as a poet once said, “A metaphor walks on three legs.”


On the other hand, the real deal in the tourist industry are hotels with five-star ratings. Like the Michelin Guide to restaurants, the rating system for hotels was driven by the auto industry. In 1958 in the US, the Mobil oil and gas company, whose employees traveled around the country to service their gas stations, started making travel guides and began using the five-star system to rate hotels. To merit five stars, a hotel offers the highest levels of luxury through personalized services, a large range of amenities, and sophisticated accommodations.

A popular feature at hotels and restaurants around the world is Happy Hour. The convivial practice is said to have originated in the US in 1913, when a group of women called the Happy Hour Social organized semi-weekly get-togethers aboard the USS Arkansas. Many Happy Hours start at 5 p.m., where the venues offer patrons alcoholic beverages and appetizers at reduced prices.

Automobile industry

Back to the automobile industry, where “four on the floor” refers to a manual transmission (MT) system, or stick shift, whereby the driver changes gear manually via a gear stick and clutch. Until the late 1970s, most transmissions had three or four forward gear ratios. Over time the number was ramped up, with high-performance sports cars having six- or seven-speed MTs.

In that regard, someone who drives a fancy car for show but can’t afford it could be called a “four-flusher.” The term describes someone who blatantly attempts a bluff, derived from poker. In that card game, a flush consists of a hand of five cards of one suit. So a four-flusher is someone who tries to pass off as a winning hand a set that consists of only four.


In the past, the place to buy household items at greatly reduced prices was the five-and-ten store, where all articles cost a nickel or a dime. The pioneer in that retail market was Frank Winfield Woolworth, who opened the Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York, in 1879. Woolworth’s expanded to a huge empire, with more than 2,200 stores nationwide by the time the company celebrated its centennial. But shopping habits ultimately changed, and such stores lost their popularity.

Preferring to do their shopping at malls and department stores, customers could no longer say, “I’ve got your six.” That expression originated in World War I when fighter pilots referenced the rear of a fellow pilot’s plane as the six o’clock position. It meant “Don’t worry – I’ve got your back.”

Lost at sea

Without such support, Woolworth’s “deep-sixed” the last of its 400 stores in 1997. That term, which means to eliminate something, has a nautical origin. It refers to six fathoms underwater (36 feet, or 10.97 meters), the depth at which something that was thrown overboard would be difficult to recover.

However, if someone lost something valuable at sea and it was retrieved, he or she would be thrilled, or “in seventh heaven.” In some belief systems, it is held that the upper part of the universe is made up of seven heavens. The ultimate seventh heaven is where the angels and the throne of the Almighty are located.

According to folklore, a mortal being who is considered to be mighty or have special powers is the seventh son of a seventh son. He must come from an unbroken line with no female siblings born between, and in turn, be born to such a seventh son.

Where did 7-Up get its name?

And speaking of seven, where did 7-Up get its name? One widely held explanation is that the soda, created in 1929, originally consisted of seven ingredients: sugar, carbonated water, essence of lemon and lime oils, citric acid, sodium citrate, and lithium citrate. The “up” referred to the lithium, which is a mood enhancer. The beverage was sold in seven-ounce bottles, as opposed to most other soft drinks that came in six-ounce bottles.

In the late 1960s, 7-Up began referring to itself as the “Uncola,” in an attempt to compete with Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In that regard, one could say that 7-Up was behind the eight ball – i.e., it was placed in a difficult situation. That expression refers to the eight ball in the game of pool or pocket billiards, in which the black ball must not be touched by any other ball or hit into a pocket.

Pool and Olympics

If a pool shark managed to elude the eight ball, he’d be on cloud nine. Why there? The first edition of the International Cloud Atlas in 1896, which defined 10 types of clouds, described the ninth type as the cumulonimbus, which rises to 10 km. (6.2 miles), the highest a cloud can be.

While the record-breaking score in pool is 714, in many competitions the top score is 10. At the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci made history on July 18 when she was awarded the first-ever perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics for her routine on the uneven bars.

On July 30 at the same Olympic Games, US athlete Bruce Jenner crossed the finish line during the last event of the decathlon and won the gold medal. The decathlon is a two-day competition comprised of 10 track and field events: the long jump, the shot put, the high jump, the hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw, and three foot races. Amassing a total of 8,617 points, Jenner set a world record in the event. As a proud Montrealer, I will end this article on that score.

There are, of course, many more terms and expressions associated with numbers, but who’s counting?  ■