Threesology Research Journal
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(The Study of Threes)

  1. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 1
  2. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 2
  3. The Number Three in the American Culture pg. 3

The following article (chapter), written by Professor Alan Dundes of Berkeley University, appeared in the 1968 book "Every Man His Way." I provide it, in its complete form, because the book is out of print and many readers may not easily be able to acquire a copy through inter-library loan, but it is an important early piece of work for those who are particularly serious about understanding the phenomena of patterns-of-three:

Students undertaking professional training in anthropology are rarely, if ever, required to formally study their own cultures. They must demonstrate competence in various topics and areas, but these do not normally include materials from their own cultures. They may be told that the identification and careful delineation of native categories may be crucial to a fuller understanding of that culture which they investigate, but their own native categories, the identification of which is equally important for an understanding of another culture, may not be considered at all. With our present knowledge of the cultural relativity of perception and cognition, it seems clear that students of anthropology should be encouraged to analyze their own native categories with the same care and methodological rigor that is demanded of them in their fieldwork in other cultures. If the reduction of ethnocentric bias is truly an ideal of anthropological scholarship, then anthropologists should go into the field with as comprehensive an understanding of the nature of their own culture as possible.

This essay, appearing for the first time in this volume, is an attempt to describe just one native category in American culture. The category concerns the number three in various forms; tripartition, trebling, and others. It will be shown that this folk cognitive category pervades not only virtually every aspect of American life, but also a good many of the supposedly objectively and empirically derived analytical categories. In other words, some of our allegedly scientific categories turn out to be nothing but culturally relative folk categories in disguise.

"Nothing is as difficult to see as the obvious."
Bronislaw Malinowski, A Scientific Theory of Culture.

Ever since the publication of H. Usener's monograph in 1903, no one has questioned the importance of the number three in Greek and Roman culture. Subsequent investigations of classical literature, law, and medicine (Göbel, Goudy, Tavenner) have served only to confirm the pattern. More recent scholarship (Deonna, Dumézil) has demonstrated the existence of the pattern in most of Western civilization and has suggested it may be a characteristic of Indo-European culture. Some of the more convincing evidence is provided by mythology and, more specifically, by the widespread occurrence of triads of deities. Typical examples would be the Babylonian Ea, Anu, and Enil, and the Hindu Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Also pertinent is the widespread distribution of single gods with three heads (Kirfel). However, relatively few of the numerous studies of the Number three have concerned themselves with the "three-determinism" of contemporary thought.

In a valuable study which appeared polygenetically the same year as Usener's, Raimund Müller suggests that modern European culture is just as three-oriented as classical culture was. Unfortunately, because Müller's essay was published as a somewhat obscure graduate exercise program, it has had little influence. As for American culture in particular, only one of the studies made by classicists and Indo-Europeanists (Lease) and some of the latest of a long line of overtly Christian treatises seeking to reveal the presence of the Trinity in nature (e.g. Strand) have documented in any detail that the number three is of ritual importance in the United States.

One should realize that three is not a universal pattern number. There are several pattern numbers, each with its own distribution. The majority of American Indian cultures have four as their ritual or sacred number. Sometimes a member of Euro-American culture is surprised or amused at the American Indian's obvious cultural insistence upon fourfold repetition. Parsons (1916:596) remarked on the "obsessive character" of the Zuni use of four. Earlier, Buckland (1895:96) had mistakenly thought that all American Indians had four as their ritual number, but he was unaware of the ritual five among numerous tribes in western North America (Jacobs, 1959:224-28; Lowie, 1925:578). The occurrence of five may be of considerable antiquity. Of course, American Indians are not particularly bothered by what appears to us as an exaggerated use of four or five repetitions, just as we are not irritated by our own equally persistent use of threefold repetitions.

It should also be noted that three is not the only pattern number in American Culture. In fact, there is clearly a plurality of pattern numbers---two, seven, and twelve are three obvious examples. Certainly, philosophical dualism is very much a part of American culture and individuals do dichotomize. Common polarities include: life/death, body/soul, and male/female. Indeed, although Lease (1919:72, n.2) suggests that the primary divisions of the human arm and leg, not to mention the finger tend to support trichotomic thinking, the anatomical datum would appear to reinforce "two" rather than "three." There are two sexes, two ears, eyes, nostrils, arms, legs and so forth. These universally recognized pairs would help to explain why dualism is worldwide. Whether one uses such criteria as dual social organization (e.g., in moiety systems) or some variation of a "self-other" or "us-them" dichotomy (e.g., as in exogamy), there seems little doubt that "two" is more widely distributed in the world than "three." In American culture one finds quite frequently that there are alternative classification schemes: One binary and one trinary. The present thesis is not that the number three is the only numerical native category in American culture, but rather that it is the predominant one.

The following general statements about the nature of trichotomy may be of interest.

  1. Often three appears to be an absolute limit; there are three terms or three categories and no more. In folk speech one can give three cheers for someone, but not two or four. (And each cheer may consist of "Hip, Hip, Hooray.") The starter for a race will say "One, two, three, go." He will not count to two or four. (Cf. the three commands "On your mark, get set, go.) The alphabet is referred to as the ABC's and in the common folk simile, something is as easy as ABC; one does not speak of learning his AB's or his ABCD's.

  2. If there are more than three terms, the additional ones will not infrequently be defined primarily in terms of one of the three basic terms, usually one of the extremes. For example, in shirt sizes, one finds small, medium, and large. The size "extra-large" is certainly linguistically and very probably conceptually derived from "large," rather than possessing separate individual status.

  3. One source of trichotomies consists of positions located in reference to some initial point. In golf one tries to shoot par for the course. He may, however, shoot "under" par or "over" par. In music, the point of reference from which "middle C," which serves, for example, as a midpoint between the base and treble clefs in addition to functioning as a point of reference from which to describe voice ranges (e.g., "two octaves above middle C").

  4. On the other hand, a third term may be the result of splitting a polarity. If A and B represent two extremes, then a trichotomy may be achieved by establishing their average, median, or mean as a midpoint. Or if "early" and "late" represented extremes in describing arrivals and departures, then "on time" would presumably be the midpoint. Obviously, in some instances, it is difficult to say whether the midpoint or the extremes came first.

  5. Another common means of trichotomy formation is the merging or combining of two terms such that one has A, B, and AB. In Robert's Rules of Order it is started that "an amendment may be in any of the following forms: (a) to insert or add, (b) to strike out, or (c) to strike out and insert." In theory, any polarity can be converted to a trichotomy by this or the immediately preceding principle. Moreover, it is decidedly easier to move from two to three (cf. Usener, 1903:323) than from three to two. The majority of the most common trichotomic schemes in American culture could not easily be put into a dichotomic mold.

  6. The strength of the trichotomic tendency is indicated in part by its "repetition compulsion." In a considerable number of tripartite schemes, each of the three units in question may itself be divided into three parts. Each of these parts may in turn be broken down into three subdivisions and so on almost ad infinitum.

  7. A final generalization concerns the special case of the triune or three-in-one. In some trichotomies the three subdivisions are not separate and independent; instead they are part of a whole. The doctrine of the Trinity as opposed to a doctrine of tritheism illustrates this form of trichotomy.

We may now turn to specific examples of trichotomy in American culture. One of the very best sources for the study of native categories is folklore. Folklore, consisting as it does of native documents or autobiographical ethnography, is prime data for investigations of cognitive patterning. A number of scholarly studies have described the frequent occurrence of "three" in European folklore (e.g., Lehmann, Müller) and indeed the overwhelming consistency of trifold repetition in both classical and modern European folklore led the distinguished Danish folklorist Axel Olrik to claim that the "law of three" was one of the fundamental epic laws governing the composition of folk narrative. There has also been a Christian-anthropological treatise (Seifert) that has sought to demonstrate threeness as a manifestation of the trinity in the myths of primitive peoples. This is questionable, but certainly in Euro-American folktales there are three brothers, three wishes, three magic objects, and often a three-day interval of waiting or fighting. In jokes, which are the modern equivalents of märchen (fairy tales), there are commonly three principals: an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotchman; a minister, a priest, and a rabbi; or a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. Structurally, there are usually three action sequences in such jokes. Three is equally popular in other genres of American folklore.

In American folksongs there are numerous examples of trebling and it is doubtful whether many singers are fully conscious of it. For example, in many songs the verse consists of a line which is repeated three times before being followed by a final line. Typical illustrations include: "John Brown's body lies a moulderin' in the grave...but his soul goes marching on"; "John Brown had a little Indian... one little Indian boy"; "Polly put the kettle on...we'll all have tea"; "Go tell Aunt Rhody (Nancy)...her old grey goose is dead"; "Lost my partner, what'll I do?...skip to my Lou, my darlin'"; etc. In other instances, a word or phrase is thrice repeated: "Row, row, row your boat," "Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb," "Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?" "Did you ever see a lassie, a lassie, a lassie?" and such other favorites as "Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight?" "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho," "Here we go round the mulberry bush," and "London Bridge is falling down," to list just a few.

The number three also figures prominently in American superstitions. Sometimes, it signifies luck: "Third time's a charm." Sometimes it is the opposite: "Three times a bridesmaid, never a bride," "Three on a match is bad luck," and "Going down for the third time" (i.e., drowning). Riddles as well as superstitions may reflect triadic from. The celebrated riddle of the Sphinx, which is very old and very widely distributed, is a particularly noteworthy, example, especially if one considers that, in a way, the riddle constitutes a folk definition of man: "It first walks on four legs, then on two, then on three legs." In many versions the "morning, noon, and night" time trichotomy is used as a metaphor of the "three" ages of man, "Four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, three legs at night"---making the tripartite categorization even more explicit.

The pattern is also found in traditional games. In the popular parlor game Tick-Tack-Toe, whose title itself is trinary, the object of the game is to get three x's or ciphers in a row. In card games, three of a kind or sequential runs of at least three cards may be important. In games such as "Hearts," where each individual passes cards to his neighbor, the number passed is three. The playing cards themselves are of interest. While there are four suits (possibly a reflection of a Chinese origin), there are but three face cards in American decks of cards. When it is realized that some European sets have four face cards, and further that the particular face cards in American culture are a King, Queen, and Jack, a secular trio of father, mother, and son, the three penchant becomes more apparent.

Threeness also occurs in team games or sports. In the "national pastime" threes abound. In baseball there are nine players; nine innings; three outs; three strikes; first, second, and third base, left, center, and right field; and often three umpires. Moreover, the fact that in professional baseball both batting and fielding averages are calculated to three places, pitching "earned run averages" (ERA) consist of three digits, and box scores commonly list "runs, hits, and errors" does tend to suggest a ternary pattern. While the patterning is not perfect (a walk is earned by four balls), three does seem to be the prevailing number. Batters are measured in part by the number of RBI's (runs batted in) and whether or not they hit over .300. (Is it just a coincidence that this particular percentage is singled out?)

Other sports in the United States reveal similar patterning. In football, the "line" consists of seven men (another magic number), but is divided into a left side, center, and right side in common parlance. The left and right sides consist of three slots: guard, tackle, and end. The backfield has four men, but only three linguistic slots: quarterback, halfback and fullback. (This is analogous to the front, side, and back yards of a house, in that four areas are labeled with just three basic designatory terms, and perhaps analogous also to the three instruments found in the normal form of the string quartet: violins, viola, and cello.) Obviously, there are other number patterns present in football. Ten yards is the immediate objective and there are four attempts (downs) permitted to attain this goal. However, a field goal is three points and a touchdown is six points.

In professional boxing, bouts take place in a "ring" which is surrounded by three strands of rope. Rounds consist of three minutes of fighting. A comparison of American and European practices once again reveals the American bias. Whereas fights in Great Britain and most of continental Europe are judged by the referee and two judges, i.e., by three votes.

One could find many additional examples from other American sports, but perhaps most striking are the following points. In many instances, only the first three participants to finish a race receive official recognition. Similarly, in horse racing the three possibilities are win, place, and show. Noteworthy also is the fact that in many American games there is more than the binary possibility of winning or losing. The third alternative, that is, drawing or tying, allows the choices "win, lose, or draw," which is consistent with trichotomic patterning. Even the partisan cheers at athletic events often consist of three words, e.g., fight team fight, hold that line, get the ball.

Another form of spectacle, the circus, though not strictly speaking a game, provides a rather striking example of trichotomy. Besides the obvious difference between a one-ring show and a three-ring circus, the latter being an excellent example of the "three-in-one" type of trichotomy, among American circus performers there has historically been a burning desire to do things in triplicate. Specifically, there were attempts to "turn a triple somersault from a trapeze bar to a catcher's hands as a grand finale of the flying return act" and to "do a triple from a springboard" (E.C. May, 1932:249). The goal, though culturally appealing, was extremely difficult physically and a host of would-be triplers actually broke their necks in attempting this feat (E.C. May, 1932:255). The existence of trebling in circus acts and of the "three-in-one" tent show may serve to illustrate how a particular widespread pattern of culture can be manifested in a single aspect of culture, an aspect which might easily be overlooked.

Another revealing aspect of folk culture concerns naming conventions. Perhaps the trichotomy here is attributable in part to the theory and methodology of logical definition itself. In formal definitions, the trinary criteria are term, genus and differentia. In any event, scientific names for plants and animals are often in trinomial form, giving genus, species, and variety. In American culture most individuals have three names, any of which may be converted into initials: John Fitzgerald Kennedy to JFK. Most formal documents have space for three names and individuals with only two names may be obliged to indicate "none" or n.m.i. (no middle initial) in the middle name slot. Significantly, it is the last or third name which is the principal identifier. The clumsiness of this system has led to the practice on many forms of requesting that the last name be given first. Organizations as well as individuals have three word names. Typical American Organizations' titles include: American Anthropological Association (AAA), American Medical Association (AMA), and Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In some instances, the organization's title has more than three words, but there are still only three initials: Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Parents and Teachers Association (PTA), and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In addition to individuals and organizations, there are the names of projects: Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), of chemical products: trinitrotoluene (TNT), and of tests: Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The names of the three major television networks are: ABC, CBS, and NBC. In fact, often the set of three initials has virtually replaced the words for which they stand: COD, DNA, DOA, FBI, FOB, GOP, LSD, MGM, RIP, rpm, TKO, USO, and VIP. the item may be considered a local family expression such as FHB (family hold back), a command directing family members to refrain from taking too much food so that guests will have enough. However, most of the items are national in scope, as in the case of the common abbreviation for the whole country: USA. The preeminence of the three letter gestalt is also suggested by SOS, in which the Morse Code signals consist of three dots, three dashes, and three dots.

A final bit of folkloristic evidence for the existence of a trichotomic pattern in American culture is provided by folk speech. The model for America's rhetorical heritage includes such triple constructions as veni, vidi, vici (and it was surely no accident that all Gaul was divided into three parts) or liberté, égalité, fraternité. Small wonder that American political style favors: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Political slogans likewise may consist of three words: I Like Ike; We Shall Overcome. But nonpolitical folk expressions are equally three-structured: beg, borrow, or steal; bell, book, and candle; blood, sweat, and tears; cool, calm, and collected; fat, dumb, and happy; hither, thither, and yon; hook, line, and sinker; hop, skip, and jump; lock, stock, and barrel; me, myself, and I; men, women, and children; ready, willing, and able; signed, sealed, and delivered; tall, dark, and handsome; Tom, Dick, and Harry; and wine, women, and song. Railroad crossing signs warn motorists to "stop, look, and listen." Advertising clichés manifest the same structure. A skin cream advertisement maintains: "she's lovely, she's engaged, she uses Pond's"; the breakfast cereal Rice Krispies is represented by "Snap, Crackle, and Pop." Commercial products such as SOS scouring pads and 3-in-1 oil use three in their names, while others claim to have an essential three-initial ingredient (Shell gasoline has TCP) or to operate on three levels (such as fighting headaches three ways). Superman, a mass media folk hero for American children, is introduced in threes: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" Superman's own formula is "Up, up, and away."

Many American verbal rituals are in the same tradition. The various countdowns prior to the starting point of events may be in threes: ready, set, go; or ready, aim, fire. The auctioneering phrase---going once, going twice, sold; or going, going, gone---is an example. There is also the barker's cry: "Hurry, hurry, hurry," often followed by "Step right up." American judicial rituals also provide illustrations. The cry of "hearye" or "oyez" repeated three times is one, while the oath sworn by a witness is another. A witness is worn by asking him to repeat "truth" three times, as he must do when he swears to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Similarly, in wedding ritual, there is the promise to "love, honor, and obey."

There are many more examples from American folk speech. Some are in rhyme: "First is worst, second the same, but third is best of all the game." Some are not: "A minute in your mouth, an hour in you stomach, a lifetime on your hips"; or the Army credo, one version of which directs, "If it moves, salute it! If it doesn't move, pick it up! If you can't pick it up, paint it!" Even more interesting is the American tendency to build triple constructions from original single ones. Thus starting from "Those who can, do" those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers!" The same pattern is reflected in a popular American leave- taking formula: "be good." The second stage: "If you can't be good, be careful" is followed by the third: "If you can't be careful, have fun" (or "name it after me").

It is not just in American folklore that the trichotomic and trebling tendency is found. Almost every aspect of American culture is similarly three-patterned. One may examine food, clothing, education, social organization, religion, time, or any other aspect of American culture and one will find abundant examples of trichotomy. Yet, most Americans are unaware of the pervasiveness of this pattern. It might therefore be worthwhile to observe a small portion of this patterning.

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My comments about the article's conclusion

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Herb O. Buckland