The Devil's Dictionary and repetition

Ronald Kephart rkephart at UNF.EDU
Thu Jan 20 12:42:10 UTC 2000

>...What is it about 3 times, as opposed to some other number?  Is it
>part of a certain set of languages, or is it some innate human tendency?

Three is, and has been for a long time, a magic number in
Indo-European. Father, son, and holy ghost; id, ego, superego; three
strikes and you're out; three wishes from the genie; you get three
guesses; three branches of government; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and so
on.  The magic number in Quechua is two, so it's at least partly

There's a classic article about the clash between magic numbers, but
I don't have the refs in my head it's been so long (I can probably
find it if someone wants). Anyway, it involves white school teachers
asking questions three times and then moving on when the student
didn't answer; their Native American students, however, were waiting
for something like a fifth time before answering, which was
culturally appropriate for them.

Ronald Kephart
English & "Foreign" Languages
University of North Florida

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