three time's a charm

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Wed Jan 14 15:43:32 UTC 2004

After Brasil won the World Cup for the third time, the morpheme -tri-
came to be a general qualifier meaning something like "really" in
Braz. Port. So things were no longer "really good" but "tri-good."


>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.

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic,
        Asian & African Languages
Wells Hall A-740
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027
preston at
Phone: (517) 432-3099
Fax: (517) 432-2736

More information about the Ads-l mailing list