I have posted various color idioms (red, blue, and silver so far), but for something a little different, here are number idioms. The following expressions are up-to-date and often used in American English.
1. Back to square ONE
- Meaning: To start from the very beginning of a situation or problem
- Origin: When a player loses during a board game, s/he must start again from the first square.
- Synonym: back to the drawing board
- Example: After adding too much salt to the recipe, I had to go back to square one.
2. Catch TWENTY-TWO (Catch-22)
- Meaning: When an individual is stuck in a paradoxical situation because whichever decision s/he makes, there is no logical resolution. Each decision contradicts the other.
- Origin: Author Joseph Heller coined the term Catch-22 in his novel by the same name, which describes the bureaucratic system of the United States Air Force.
- Synonym: double bind, no win situation
- Example: Finding a way to stay in the country legally was a Catch-22 because in order to get a work contract, he needed a national identification number, but in order to obtain a national identification number, he needed a work contract.
3. Dime a DOZEN
- Meaning: A person or thing that is cheap, easily found or available because of its massive quantity.
- Origin: In 19th century, for example, one could find peaches that cost only a dime a dozen. Nowadays this expression is used in a more figurative way.
- Example: Compared to 10 years ago, iPods are a dime a dozen these days.
4. Eighty-six (86)
- Meaning: To remove, take away, not include, ban somebody or run out of something.
- Origin: There are several theories, all revolving around New York City, such as the end of the line for the 86 train when the conductor would yell "All out!," or the Speakeasy club at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village during prohibition times when the bartender would shout "86" to warn his customers of the impending police raid. (Back in those days, the police were paid off to warn bars of their "raids".)
- Synonym: nix
- Example: I would like a cheeseburger with onions but 86 the mayo, please.
5. Five o'clock shadow
- Meaning: The stubble (or short beard hair) that a man grows around 5:00 pm after a full day at work.
- Origin: In 1930s America, the Gem Safety Razor Company used the term in their advertising campaigns.
- Synonym: stubble
- Example: Clint Eastwood always has a five o'clock shadow.