three time's a charm

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jan 14 14:56:21 UTC 2004

At 10:39 PM -0800 1/13/04, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
>>---------------------- 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.

There's also the fact that in fairy tales, folk tales, and other
traditional literature (written and oral), the third choice is the
right one.  Also in songs, jokes, etc. (the punch line comes on the
third part or in the third stanza).  There's an essay by Freud called
something like "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (the title alluding
to Portia's forced choice between gold, silver, and (I believe) lead
in "Merchant of Venice" on which suitor she would marry), where he
connects this with some of the other tales and legends involving an
incorrect A and B and a correct C.  (There's also Goldilocks, for
example (the third bowl/chair/bed) and the Big Bad Wolf (the third
method of house construction).)  Freud, of course, attributes a deep
psychic significance to the number 3, but I forget which.


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