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“Running Numbers” — Meaning, Origin & Context

“Running Numbers” — Meaning, Origin & Context

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One of the interesting things about language is how its meaning changes over time.

In some cases, such as “literally,” words can take on the opposite of their original meaning.

In addition to this, many words have a somewhat darker origin than the meaning they have today.

Today, we’ll take a look at an example of a common expression that seems to have a surprising background.


What is the meaning of “running numbers”?

The term “Running numbers” originates in illegal lotteries, where a runner would literally “run” the chosen numbers from an official drawing to the crime syndicate organizing the lottery. These days, however, “running numbers” is simply an expression that refers to doing some kind of calculation.

Illegal lotteries and the surprising origin of “running numbers”

Today, the phrase “running numbers” or “running the numbers” has a very ordinary meaning.

However, to understand its original meaning, we need to go back in time to the 1920s.

In the 1920s and 1930s, gambling was illegal in the United States.

Of course, as anybody knows, making something illegal creates a very profitable black market run by criminals.

That may seem surprising, but if you take a minute to let it sink in, it will make sense.

Enter the world of “the numbers game.”

In the numbers game, a crime syndicate would hold a lottery that anybody could enter by picking any three-digit number they liked.

These numbers would be tied ahead of time to a specific and public event, such as the last three digits of that day’s stock market closing or the order of horses in a race.

If the number you bet on matched the day’s official numbers, you would win a 600:1 payout.

That means if you bet a dime, you could earn as much as $60.00 (the equivalent of $840 in today’s currency).

Like most illegal activities, the risks for participating in the numbers game were high and many.

On the other hand, the payout was also incredibly high, and the crime syndicates also made a lot of money organizing the lotteries.

Because of the high stakes, the organizers would hire someone to act as a “runner,” memorizing or otherwise writing down the bets and that day’s official numbers and then delivering them to the syndicate’s central office.

Incidentally, the phrase “high stakes” here nicely illustrates the meaning of “no pun intended”.

Of course, the numbers game also greatly enriched communities of color and other poor neighborhoods.

One so-called “numbers man” in Pittsburgh, for example, was not viewed as a criminal by those who gambled with him.

Likewise, black business owners who ran numbers games could and did use their profits to bring amenities and entertainment to their area that would not otherwise have been possible.

Originally, the expression “running numbers” referred to the process of learning what that day’s selected numbers were and passing that information along to the crime syndicate responsible for organizing the illegal lottery.

More generally, the expression referred to anyone involved with illegal gambling.


How “running numbers” is used today

Running Numbers Meaning Today

Most people today don’t know about this original meaning of the expression “running numbers,” but rather use it to say that they need to perform some calculation.

You will most likely hear this in a business setting, often in budget discussions.

For example, if someone proposes a new project, the person in charge of the budget might say that it sounds like a good idea, but they have to run the numbers first.

All this means is that they need to check and see if there is enough money.

Outside of a business setting, this phrase is also used in statistics and other situations involving some number.

It might refer to the process of double-checking a vote, making sure measurements are correct, or many other number-related activities.

Although it seems strange to think about this expression changing so much from its origin, this is likely more a case of two similar expressions being confused.

When you “run numbers” in a business or statistical sense, it’s implied that you are running them through a machine, like a calculator or computer.

Because “run” can be interpreted as physically moving from one place to another or inserting data into a machine, the two expressions seem identical even though they are slightly different.

Regardless, unless the person saying they are “running numbers” or “running the numbers” is involved in organized crime, chances are good that this second meaning of the expression is what they intended to say.

Running Numbers Meaning Origin Context