I walked down the long, wet cobblestone hill into town. I ignored the flashes of lightning around me. They either had your number on them or they didn't.

Source: J. D. Salinger: For Esmé – with Love and Squalor

What does the last sentence mean? The literal translation does not make much sense here. Is this ("to have a number on somebody") some kind of idiom?


2 Answers 2


My guess is that if a flash of lightning "has your number on it", it's destined for you. If it does not, then it won't hit you - it then might "have someone else's number on it".

Imagine that every person in the world is assigned a number, and a particular lightning bolt will strike only a person with a particular number. We might then say: "This particular lightning bolt has CopperKettle's number on it".

So, in short, it's either part of your destiny to be stricken by lightning on a particular occasion, or it's not part of your destiny.

If it's part of your destiny, you can't escape it: the lightning bolt already has a tag attached to it that says "Bart-leby", so it's no use making fuss about it. If it's not part of your destiny, then it's no use worrying either, since it won't hit you.

The hero of the narrative is in a fatalistic mood. "If you're born to be hanged, then you'll never be drowned."

From the entry on fatalism in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (Oxford University Press, 2005), page 131:

Either a bullet has my number on it or it does not; if it does, then there is no point taking precations for it will kill me anyhow; if it does not, then there is no point taking precautions for it is not going to kill me; hence either way there is no point taking precations.

  • 2
    A related common idiom: someone’s number is up Sep 20, 2015 at 12:39
  • 2
    To be specific - everyone in the Army has a 'Name, Rank, and Serial Number'. The superstition was that in some sense the bullet that will kill you is marked with your serial number.
    – peterG
    Sep 20, 2015 at 20:14
  • I thought it came from a grocery store type situation. Like when "your number is up," St Peter is calling it at the pearly gates. Or "to have your number" is for someone to know what you're about, in this case akin to "having your name on it."
    – JFA
    Sep 21, 2015 at 0:44

The idiom probably derives from actual use of numbers, e.g. as used in a lottery system for drafting people into the military. When a certain number is drawn, either that individual or group has to report for duty -- thus risk getting killed.

From WWI in the US: "These boards issued draft calls in order of numbers drawn in a national lottery..." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_the_United_States

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .