100 Idioms About Numbers

By Mark Nichol

Last week, I offered a post about idioms pertaining to the number one (I limited the scope because there’s only so much space on the Internet.) Here’s the sequel, with expressions that mention all other numbers.

1. (a number) (something) short of a (something): said euphemistically of someone who is mentally deficient or unstable (as in “one slice short of a loaf”)
2–3. $64,000 question/million-dollar question: a very important question (from game shows that offered such an amount to contestants who answered increasingly difficult quiz questions)
4. a dime a dozen: cheap and/or plentiful
5. a million miles away: distracted
6. a stitch in time saves nine: a proverb that refers to the importance of precaution
7. as easy as one-two-three: said of something as simple as counting
8. at sixes and sevens: confused
9. at the eleventh hour: at a late stage or the last possible moment
10. bat a thousand: be very successful (from the batting average in baseball: one who bats 1.000—or, in this context, “a thousand”—gets a hit every time)
11. behind the eight-ball: in a difficult situation (from the pool ball numbered 8 as an obstacle)
12. catch-22: a no-win situation
13. deep-six: dispose of or get rid of (from a nautical measurement of depth; compare to “six feet under”)
14: dressed to the nines: very well dressed
15. eight-hundred-pound gorilla: any formidable obstacle
16. eighty-six: to 86 someone is to eject or get rid of them, or to refuse them service
17–20: feel/look like a million bucks/dollars: said in reference to being in an excellent state of emotional or physical health or to having the appearance of being in excellent condition
21: fifteen minutes of fame: brief, superficial celebrity (based on Andy Warhol’s observation about ephemeral celebrity)
22. fifty-fifty: said of dividing something equally
23. five-finger discount: shoplifting
24. five will get you ten: in all likelihood (from the results of gambling on even odds)
25. fiver: five-dollar bill
26. four-bagger: a home run in baseball (from the batter touching all four bags, or bases)
27. four corners of the earth: all the parts of the world
28. four-eyes: a mocking term for someone who wears eyeglasses
29. four-leaf clover: an allusion to good luck because of the notion that finding a clover with four leaves, which is rare, will bring good fortune
30. four-letter word: an obscene or vulgar word, from the fact that several such words have four letters
31. forty winks: a nap
32. give me five: an exclamation prompting someone to slap another’s hand as greeting or acknowledgment
33. give two hoots about: said of someone, preceded by one or more names or a pronoun and doesn’t or don’t, to express a lack of concern
34. hang ten: a greeting referring to the surfing challenge of hanging all one’s toes over the front end of the surfboard
35. high-five: a gesture two people exchange by slapping hands with their arms extended upward
36–39. hundred-to-one/million-to-one chance/shot: said in reference to a low probability of success
40–41. hundred/thousand and one: said in reference to an indeterminate but large number of conditions or reasons something may fail or not turn out well
42. it takes two to tango: said of a situation in which two parties are both responsible
43. Joe Six-Pack: the average man (from the notion that he’s just a regular guy who likes to drink beer)
44. kill two birds with one stone: achieve two goals with one action
45. know a trick or two: said when one has an unorthodox solution to a problem
46. lesser of two evils: something that is bad but not as bad as something else
47. nine lives: a reference to having good luck (from the notion that cats have nine lives)
48. nine times out of ten: almost always
49. nine-day wonder: a briefly famous or attention-getting person or thing (see also “seven-day wonder”)
50. nine-to-five attitude: an approach to work in which an employee does the minimum required to remain employed (compare to “nine-to-five job”)
51. nine-to-five job: full-time employment during daytime hours, or, broadly, conventional office employment (compare to “nine-to-five attitude”)
52. no two ways about it: said to express certainty or inflexibility
53. of two minds: undecided
54. on all fours: on hands and knees
55. on cloud nine: very happy
56. phony as a three-dollar bill: said in reference to something patently fake
57. possession is nine-tenths of the law: a reference to the notion that someone who possesses something has a stronger legal claim to it than someone who merely asserts ownership
58. put two and two together: said of correctly figuring out or solving a problem, as compared with computation
59. queer as a three-dollar bill: said in reference to something very peculiar
60. scattered to the four winds: widely dispersed
61. seven-day wonder: sarcastic reference to someone or something supposedly made perfect in seven days (alluding to the biblical account of creation)
62. seven-year itch: a desire to cheat on one’s spouse said to manifest after seven years of marriage
63. six feet under: dead and buried (from the traditional burial depth of six feet; compare to “deep-six”)
64. six of one and half a dozen of the other: said in reference to little difference between two things
65–66. six-pack: while away the time drinking beer, or a reference to a well-toned abdomen (because the contours of the muscles resemble the adjacent curves of a set of beverage cans); see also “Joe Six-Pack”
67. six ways from Sunday: every possible way
68. slip me five: shake my hand
69. stand on (one’s) own two feet: be self-sufficient
70. take five: rest briefly
71. tell (someone) a thing or two: scold
72. ten: excellent or perfect (alluding to a 1-to-10 scale of quality)
73. ten-four: yes (from a radio code)
74. ten-spot: ten-dollar bill
75. ten to one: used as an introductory phrase to express one’s believe that the odds of something happening are favorable
76. that makes two of us: we agree, or something is true of the speaker or writer and another person
77. three-alarm fire: said of something as exciting as a major structural fire (the number referenced may vary)
78. three cheers: praise (also used sarcastically)
79. three hots and a cot: a slang reference to jail or prison as a place where three hot meals and a bed are provided
80. three squares a day: a reference to three complete meals
81. three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic (alluding to the first consonant sound of each word)
82. three-ring circus: said of a confused or noisy activity
83. three sheets to the wind: drunk (from nautical slang referring to sheets, or ropes that hold sails taut, coming loose, causing a sailing ship to move erratically)
84. three strikes: said in reference to having three chances before suffering a consequence (see also “two strikes”)
85. twenty-four seven: all the time, from the count of twenty-four hours and seven days (usually written 24/7 and sometimes extended to 24/7/365 to refer to the number of days in a year)
86. twentysomething: in one’s twenties (also thirtysomething, etc.)
87. two can play that game: refers to the possibility that one who has treated another badly may be treated that way in return
88. two cents’ worth: advice
89. two heads are better than one: collaboration will produce a better outcome than individual effort
90. two left feet: said of an awkward dancer
91–92. two of a kind/two peas in a pod: said of two people who are very similar (or, in the case of the second expression, often in each other’s company)
93. two shakes of a lamb’s tail: a very brief period
94. two strikes: said of someone or something that has two disadvantages or obstacles, with the implication that a third strike, as in baseball, will put someone or something out of action
95. two wrongs don’t make a right: doing something wrong in response to another wrong is not justified
96. two-timer: someone who cheats on a partner
97. two’s company: part of a proverb (followed by the counterpoint “three’s a crowd”) to express that often, a third person is unwelcome
98. up to eleven: to a great degree (an allusion to a volume dial going past the usual 1-to-10 scale)
99. whole nine yards: as far as possible, or the entire amount
100. wouldn’t touch (someone or something) with a ten-foot pole: a reference to assiduously avoiding something

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3 Responses to “100 Idioms About Numbers”

  • Curtis Manges

    Five will get you ten ol’ Mackie’s back in town.
    Two-to-one odds.

  • venqax

    Number 12 presents a problem to me. A catch 22 is an unwinnable situation with very specific characteristics, not just any “no win” scenario. Despite the careless way it is used, it is best to leave that idiom to mean what nothing else does.

  • Rick

    Ditto, Curtis…2:1 odds.
    Also, when I read the idiom of “9 day wonder”, it sounded to me like it was meant to “90 day wonder”, the label given to an officer straight out of OCS, bound to make fundamental mistakes, and having a low probability of survival in combat.

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