The phrases to have someone’s number and I’ve got your number are idioms that came into use in the mid-1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the definition of the expressions to have someone’s number and I’ve got your number, where they may have come from and some examples of their use in sentences.
The expression to have someone’s number means to thoroughly understand someone and their motives, which are usually hidden to most people. To have someone’s number means that the person can not take advantage of you because you understand what their game is, and you understand their true motives and goals. Often, the phrase I’ve got your number is used to warn someone that you are on to their nefarious pursuits, and their deceit will not work on you. I’ve got your number may also be a warning that you will expose the person for who he truly is and what he is truly doing. The origin of the phrase to have someone’s number is unclear. Some believe that the expression is derived from the fact that each telephone has a unique call number. However, the expression to have someone’s number has been in use since at least 1853, and the first American patent for the telephone was acquired by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. The earliest known use of the term was by Charles Dickens in his novel, Bleak House: “Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a crying off from being held accountable, and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.” In this case, Dickens is probably making use of an already existing idiom. Some etymologists believe that having someone’s number is a synonym for having someone’s measure, meaning to understand the true moral and intrinsic worth of a man, to understand who he truly is.
“He was trying to send a signal to the judge: I’ve got your number,” the partner told me. (New York Magazine)
‘I know your type, I’ve got your number Sam,’ Griffin replied. (The Daily Mail)
He wasn’t cagey in the interviews, but he was a bit, ‘OK, I’ve got your number’. (The Independent)
Next thing you know, you’re the battle-scarred parent of a teen, glaring sourly at a bunch of other teenagers in the street, thinking: “I’ve got your number, you slouchy jeaned, midriff-exposing, social media-obsessed reprobates.” (The Guardian)