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The Indo-European root that likely gave us our word number was nem. It had a meaning of “assign” or “allot.”
This may have shown up later in an Ancient Greek word nemein with a similar meaning of “deal out” or “distribute.”
That Greek nemein is the root of our word nemisis which itself comes from the name of a Greek goddess whose job it was to dole out divine retribution.
By the time the word numerus showed up in Classical Latin the numerical implications of having to sort out allotments and distributions had given the Latin word many of the meanings that we give to the English word number today.
Of course the word had to morph from a Latin to a French word before being imported by the Normans and appearing as an English word around 1300.
So much for ancient history.
What have we moderns done with it? The phrase a hot little number doesn’t have much to do with numbers; nor does rolling a number or doing a number on.
Doing a number on something is said by The Oxford English Dictionary to have first appeared in print in 1967 in the Unbelievable Dictionary of Hip Words. It means to do some sort of damage and the OED claims it’s from Afro-American origins.
A joint is also sometimes called a number and this dates from 1963 and the Marihuana Dictionary (I checked and unfortunately there is no sign that this work was printed on hemp paper).
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.
A hot number or a nice little number might equally be used to mean a “pretty dress.”
That use that predates the others at 1894 and seems the only one of the group whose first citation didn’t come from a lexicographer’s pen.
Instead it came in the book The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross.
Martin Ross was actually Violet Martin.
Violet did indeed work with Edith on The Real Charlotte but later died while Edith kept on writing.
Edith also kept on publishing using her own name plus her coauthor’s pseudonym. She claimed their partnership endured beyond the grave.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.