Running Numbers – Meaning and Origin

Throughout time, there have been more and more idioms that have come about in the English language. And these can come from a variety of places, literature, religion, culture. But one area that you might not expect a common idiom to come from is crime.

Running numbers was said initially by criminals in the 1920s and 30s. When organised criminals would put on illegal lotteries, the number runners job was to take the money from the bars, shops, and saloons to the crime HQ.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what life was like back then, how the meaning has changed over time, and what the problem was with these illegal lotteries.

How were these numbers decided?

Since this is a lottery, you would be forgiven in thinking that the numbers would be completely random. Drawn out of a hat.

But unfortunately, this is not how the numbers were picked. The people who chose the numbers would get them from sports scores or stock closings. This would mean that the so-called “random” numbers weren’t quite as random as they should have been.

So let’s say horse number 42 won the race, player number 12 got the winning pitch, and a big company closed in the stock market at $4 million.

The numbers could be 42, 12, and 04.

The problem with that

On the surface, this might not seem too important. After all, so long as people don’t know the numbers when they buy their ticket, why does it matter where they come from?

But that’s the problem, people did know where these numbers come from. If you were playing the lottery with the same organised crime group for a while, it would very quickly click where these numbers came from.

When you know what the winning numbers will be, it’s fair to say your chances of winning go up slightly.

This would be a problem when the gangs couldn’t pay all their winners.

What was life like?

For the gamblers

The people who would buy these lottery tickets would not have been the big business people who had money to burn.

These people lived at the very bottom of society, and for them, just being able to feed their family was a struggle they had to live with. When living in that situation, having the chance of winning a large sum of money would have seemed like a godsend.

The crime gangs would prey on these types of people and exploit their vulnerabilities. Many of the people who brought the lottery tickets were Italian Americans.

For the runners

Whilst it’s true that many of the bosses in these crime gangs managed to live very lavish lifestyles, the same could not be said for the people who had to run the numbers.

These people were often from financially deprived communities. They had to get any job they could get if they wanted food in their belly and a roof over their head.

In terms of the corporate hierarchy, the number runners would have been right at the bottom. They were disposable, and if they died, it’s unlikely the killer would have faced justice.


“Running numbers” is an excellent example of a euphemism.

A euphemism is when we talk about taboo topics but do so in a way that makes it seem like we’re talking about something innocent. This could be because we’re in polite company, and we don’t want to come across as uncouth. But it could also be because we’re worried about who’s listening and we don’t want certain people to know what we’re talking about.

Usually, euphemisms are used when talking about sex. However, in this case, we’re using them to talk about illegal activity.

In modern talk

These days, you may have heard the phrase be used in the office. I hate to burst your bubble, but I very much doubt that Janet from accounting is in a 1920s crime gang.

When people say that they’re “running the numbers” in a modern office, they usually just mean they’re doing maths. This could be on a computer or in their minds, depending on the nature of the numbers they have to run.

Most of the people who use this phrase will say it without even thinking about where it comes from.

Remember “running numbers” is illegal, “running THE numbers” is doing maths, which isn’t illegal just yet.

If we take it literally

Many idioms will use metaphors to describe something in a way that is not a literal description. However, it can be funny to think about what would happen if these words were taken literally.

If numbers were to literally run, it would mean they would have to have legs, and that would be super weird. It would feel like something out of a kids tv show. ‘

I don’t know about you, but I’m not too comfortable with the thought of doing work and suddenly having numbers run across my table.

Other phrases from crime

Other phrases also have their origins in the world of crime but have since been used by many people who would never dream of breaking the law.

The first is the classic “fuggedaboutit”. This is basically just “forget about it” but with an Italian American accent.

The word “con” as in “con artist” comes from the word “confident” which describes what you need to be to con someone.

If you like someone, you might describe them as a “good egg”, and if this “good egg” is wearing diamonds, you could say they have lots of “ice”. But when they’re time is over, you may need to “knock them off”.


The phrase “running numbers” comes from the 1920s and 30s when gambling was illegal. So the only way for people to enter the lottery would have been via the criminal gangs.

To get the money from the customers to the crime bosses, they would have needed someone to “run the numbers”.

The problem with this system is that a lot of the numbers came from sports scores or stock closings, and therefore people would have been able to guess them.

Neither the gamblers nor the runners would have had a particularly good life.