‘to have a person’s name on it’: meanings and origin

The phrase to have a person’s name on it means to be destined or appropriate for a particular person.

This phrase originated during the First World War as to have a person’s name and number on it, and meant, of a bullet, etc., to be destined to hit a particular person. It reflected the soldiers’ fatalistic acceptance of death.

These are the earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase to have a person’s name and number on it, as used during the First World War:

1-: From a letter that one John Andrews, of Elgin, Illinois, who was fighting with the Canadians in France, wrote on Monday 18th December 1916 to one George W. Coleman of Rockford, Illinois—letter published in The Rockford Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois) of Thursday 8th February 1917:

With reference to being under fire the soldier says that “some days quite a few shells drop around us, and other days none. They come too close for comfort sometimes. When one drops 50 or 100 yards away it makes a fellow feel queer for you never can tell where the next one will hit. So all a fellow can do when he hears one of Fritz’s souvenirs come whistling through the air is to duck his head and wait about five seconds to see if that is the shell with his name and number on it.”

2 & 3-: From Over the Top” by an American soldier who went (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), by the U.S. author, actor, screenwriter and film producer Arthur Guy Empey (1883-1963), who volunteered in the British Army in 1915:

2-: From Chapter XXVI: All Quiet (?) on the Western Front:

By being careful and remaining motionless when the star shells fell behind us, we reached the German barbed wire without mishap. Then the fun began. I was scared stiff as it is ticklish work cutting your way through wire when about thirty feet in front of you there is a line of Boches looking out into No Man’s Land with their rifles lying across the parapet, straining every sense to see or hear what is going on in No Man’s Land; because at night, Fritz never knows when a bomb with his name and number on it will come hurtling through the air, aimed in the direction of Berlin.

3-: From Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches, appended to “Over the Top”:

Trench Mortar. A gun like a stove pipe which throws shells at the German trenches. Tommy detests these mortars because when they take positions near to him in the trenches, he knows that it is only a matter of minutes before a German shell with his name and number on it will be knocking at his door.

4-: From Slang in War-Time, published in The Athenæum (London, England) of Friday 18th July 1919:

A soldier refers to a shell that kills him as “having his name and number on it,” but perhaps that is poetry, and not slang.

The phrase reoccurred at the beginning of the Second World War, in the same acceptation but as to have a person’s name on it. For example, the following is from the column Town Talk, by ‘The Man in the Street’, published in the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph (Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England) of Saturday 18th November 1939:

It was in a railway carriage.
The dear old lady got into conversation with Leading Aircraftman Montmorency.
“I’m so nervous about these air raids,” said the dear old lady. “I can’t sleep.”
“I have awful dreams, you wouldn’t believe. I see bombs fall on my house.”
L.A. Montmorency said she shouldn’t worry like that.
“It’s [sic] just amounts to this mother,” he said. “If Hitler has your name on one his bombs then you’re for it.”
The dear old thing swallowed hard.
“Mercy me,” she said, “does Hitler know all our names, too.”

The phrase also occurred in an article about 650 Preston men who were “called upon to register for military training under the recent Royal Proclamation”—article published in the Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 9th December 1939:

There was [a] tall young fellow who confessed to trying weeks ago to gain admittance to all three Services, but was turned down because they said they had enough men at that time. He was delighted, actually delighted, that now his chance had come.
He wanted to be an artilleryman, was eager to get to France and will be sorry if he does not get there this summer. He was something of a fatalist, too, because he added: “My attitude to war is this, that if a bullet or shell has your name on it, that is that. Otherwise why worry?”