three time's a charm

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Jan 14 06:39:43 UTC 2004

>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>
>Subject:      Re: three time's a charm
>Try "third time's a charm" or "third time's the charm" or "third time is a
>charm" or "third time is the charm". I see examples back to 1880 at
>N'archive. Possibly there's something in the OED or ....
>To me the expression means "on the third try one gets lucky" or something
>like that.
>-- Doug Wilson

In a JSTOR search, I did find "three's a charm" cited in a 1927
article in The Journal of American Folklore on Louisiana
superstitions, and  "The third time is the charm" recorded as a
proverb in a 1950 article from the same journal on "Folk Beliefs
Collected in Southeastern Illinois."

It seems pretty clear that the proverb originally implied the sense
of 'charm' as a magical incantation or talisman. A 1989 article on
Russian ritual incantations from the Slavic and  East European
Journal mentions the saying in connection with the belief that spells
and incantations must be repeated three times to be effective, though
he doesn't say whether there's a Russian equivalent. And a number of
articles mention the significance of the number 3 in charms; for
example a 1909 article on Anglo Saxon charms in the The Journal of
American Folklore points out that "The numbers 3 and 9 occur much
more frequently than any other numbers in the charms. ... Thus,
certain rites are to be performed three times [or] on three
successive days. Chants are to be sung three times..." The author
mentions other charms involving  three stones, three nails, three
cups, three leek-leaves, three herbs, three incisions, etc.

Geoff Nunberg

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