Threesology Research Journal
Page 2 of 3

(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

Americans customarily eat three meals a day (at morning, noon, and night). One must remember that three meals a day is by no means a universal custom. Moreover, while the actual number of artifacts employed to move the food from a container to the mouth may vary with the type of meal and its formality, there are only three basic implements: knife, fork, and spoon. With respect to silverware, it is of interest that Emily Post, an authority on American etiquette, states that one of the important differences between place settings in formal and informal dining concerns the number of forks. On formal occasions, there should be no more than three forks (and three knives), whereas in informal dining, the three fork limit is absent. In many American homes the sets of china include three plate sizes: bread and butter, luncheon, and dinner. While the number of courses served at a meal is, like the number of eating implements, determined in part by the occasion and place, one might conceivable consider that dinners served in average restaurants consist of three parts: soup or appetizer; entree with vegetable or salad; and dessert with coffee. (One might define the segments of the continuum of a meal served in a restaurant on the basis of the number of times the waiter or waitress removes dishes or brings a new set of food items to the table.) In any event, while the number of courses is admittedly open to question, it is true that entrees are commonly divided on menus into meat, poultry, and fish. And it is equally true that patrons order their steak to be cooked: rare, medium, or well-done. The beverage choice may be "coffee, tea, or milk." If an alcoholic beverage were desired, the choice might be beer, wine, or whiskey. Noteworthy is one dessert commonly served in restaurants, Neapolitan ice cream with its three flavor layers: chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

Of theoretical interest is the fact that the smallest detail may reveal the same patterning present in larger aspects of culture. Such a detail is the cutting of sandwiches. While it is true that the cutting of sandwiches is almost always binary, the way in which sandwiches are cut in half may be significant. In restaurants sandwiches are usually halved with a diagonal cut so that the patron is presented with two triangular halves. At home, however, sandwiches are often cut to form two rectangles. The point is that when the sandwiches are cut into rectangles, there is no opposition to the basic binary division, but rather a reinforcement of this pattern. The rectangle has four sides which consist of two pairs of parallel lines, i.e., its length and its width. In contrast, when the sandwiches are divided into four rather than two sections, the same kind of 'restaurant-home' patterning prevails. In a restaurant the sandwich is normally divided by means of two diagonal cuts into four triangular sections:

Sandwich cut into triangular sections

At home, the mother making smaller sandwich sections for her younger children is more likely to divide the sandwich into four square sections:

Sandwich cut into squares

From this, one might be led to hypothesize a possible association of "two" with informal occasions as opposed to the association of "three" with more formal occasions. In any case, sandwiches, surely a very popular item on the American menu, consists of two bread covers and a "middle." Sometimes the "middle" consists of three components, such as bacon, lettuce, and tomato (the BLT sandwich). The popularity of the club sandwich or triple decker, in which three slices of bread are used, is also worth noting.

Clothing is as rewarding a subject as food for the study of cultural patterns. As noted earlier, many articles of clothing come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. Moreover, generally speaking, American clothing is worn in three layers. Beneath the layer visible to one's fellows lie undergarments (e.g., underwear). For outside wear and for warmth, one may don such outer-garments as an overcoat. Thus with respect to any one part of the body, for example, the feet, one might find socks, shoes, and overshoes. That this is a manifestation of culture patterning is suggested by the fact that not all cultures prescribe three layers of clothing. Socks and underwear are not universal. One is tempted to suggest that the body is divided into three basic parts for clothing purposes. In terms of standard indoor apparel, one ordinarily covers the feet, the lower torso up to the waist, and the upper torso above the waist. In men's clothing, for example, these three parts are dressed separately. Shoes and socks are put on after shorts and trousers. Undershirt and shirt clothe the third unit of the body. Although stylistic features do vary, men's sport jackets more often than not have three buttons sewn on the cuffs of the jacket. The usual number of outside pockets on such jackets is three and in the upper one of these pockets, one may place a handkerchief. The handkerchief may be folded into a triangle so that one point protrudes or, in a fancy dress variant, the handkerchief may be folded such that three points protrude.

The subject of folding is a most fascinating micro-cultural detail. It appears, for example, that a binary versus a trinary distinction occurs with respect to folding letters. Personal or social letter paper should be folded once, thus forming two parts. In contrast, business letter paper is ordinarily folded twice, thus "dividing" one letter into three parts (Post, 1960:503). Note that the two-part letter is informal and the three-part letter is formal, a distinction paralleling one made previously in connection with alternative ways of cutting sandwiches. (The association of tripartite division with formality is also manifested in the ritual folding of the American flag into triangles on ceremonial occasions.) The outside of the envelope provides further data. On the front of the envelope, one writes the address of person to whom the letter is to be sent and this address is frequently divided into three parts. On the first of the three lines, one puts the addressee's name, usually preceded by one of three titles: Mr., Mrs,. or Miss, e.g., Mr. Alan Dundes. The second line typically has a number, a street name, and the word street or its equivalent, e.g., 985 Regal Road. The third line consists of city, state, and ZIP code (or zone number), e.g., Berkeley, California 94708. The two versus three distinction occurs on the first line. The use of two names may indicate a close and personal relationship between the sender and addressee, while the use of three names or two names plus the middle initial very probably indicates that there is some social distance and a certain amount of formality in the relationship. (The most intimate relationship, that signaled by a reciprocal "first name" arrangement, is of course not feasible in written as opposed to spoken tradition.) The formalizing effect of the presence of a third party upon a previous two-party group is also relevant (Simmel). (Cf. the folk judgment: two's company, three's a crowd!)

Some examples of American material culture have already been discussed, but there are many more. Traffic lights are usually divided into three parts: red/stop, yellow/caution, and green/go. Superhighways commonly have three lanes (the middle one of which contributes to a metaphor for American political positions: left, right, and middle of the road). Freeway signs often list the next three exits. Standard gear shifts in automobiles have traditionally been divided into forward, neutral, and reverse. While this might appear to be necessary, the further division of forward into first, second, and third gears is not. Even the modern automatic shift systems have a low gear and two drive positions. Some makes of cars come in three degrees of quality, although obviously the idea of first-rate, second rate, and third-rate is disguised.

Moving away from automobiles, we may note some other examples of American technological culture. Until recently most record players and tape recorders had three speeds; there are three major types of motion picture film (8, 16, and 35 millimeter); stoves and window fans may have settings of low, medium, and high; toasters frequently have settings for three degrees of brightness; and typewriters have single, double, and triple spacing. Cold drink vending machines usually offer three choices and one may make a choice by depositing a nickel, dime or quarter. In slot machine gambling, the winning combination may be three of a kind, e.g., three lemons.

The pattern is also found in the telephone. On modern telephones, one finds that on the dials there are groups of three letters which correspond to one finger slot. Moreover, the United States and Canada have recently been divided into more than one hundred telephone areas, each of which is identified by a three-digit area code. By means of this system, DDD (Direct Distance Dialing) has been established. Other three-centered features include the three-digit numbers for information (4ll) or repair (6ll), not to mention the standard basic time unit of telephone calls: three minutes. While the telephone is not as obvious an example as the three-color American flag, it is influenced by the same general culture pattern.

The American educational system reflects the pattern too, with its breakdown into primary, secondary, and higher education. It is in primary or elementary school that the three R's (Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic) are taught. Higher education consists of three degrees: bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. In colleges where a credit system is employed, the usual number of credits needed to be promoted is thirty, a multiple of three. Most college courses are worth three credits and they ordinarily meet three times or three hours a week. The college school year is divided into tow semesters, Fall and Spring, plus a summer session. (A trimester scheme, in which the three school year units are equal, is in effect at a few colleges.) Frequently, a "social organizational" distinction is made between freshmen and upperclassmen, with the latter consisting of three classes: sophomore, junior, and senior. (The alternate distinction of lower division versus upper division is in the binary cultural category and provides an illustration of the dichotomy-trichotomy choice.) Interestingly enough, this scheme parallels the professorial rankings in which at least linguistically there is a distinction between "instructor" and the upper three ranks: assistant professor, associate professor, and (full) professor. While at college, a student may specialize in the humanities, the social sciences, or the natural sciences. If he distinguishes himself, he may receive his bachelor's degree cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude. In graduate schools, doctoral candidates may be examined in three major fields of specialization and their thesis committees consist of at least three members. Even educational philosophy and methodology is three-bound. One teaching technique consists of "Preview, Teach and Review," which keeps its tripartite form in an analogous folk pedagogical principle: tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em.

American social organization, like American education, is under the influence of the pattern. The continuum of the American population is divided into upper, middle, and lower classes. These distinctions have even been further refined so that the upper class yields upper upper, middle upper, and lower upper. In the same way, American intellectual levels are high brow, middle, brow, and low brow. "American government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary. While the legislative branch is bicameral, it is of interest that senators are elected for six year terms with a stagger system such that only one third can be changed at one time. In terms of sociopolitical geographical units, most Americans feel loyalty to their community, their state, and their country.

Perhaps the best example of trinary social organization is found in the American military system, which consists of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. with a supreme Secretary of Defense, one has a prime illustration of the division of a unity into three parts, a secular parallel to the sacred Trinity. Each of the services has a system of rank based in part upon three. In the Navy, for example, the three initial grades are: Seaman Recruit (one stripe), Seaman Apprentice (two stripes), and Seaman (three stripes). The sequence of unrated men, that is, SR, SA, and SN, does not continue; instead a new sequence begins: Third Class Petty Officer (three chevrons). Although there is a Chef Petty Officer grade, his uniform and status are quite different from PO3, PO2, and PO1, different enough so that the apparent binary split between "officers" and "men" is in fact trinary: officers, chiefs, and men. this trichotomy is even more obvious when the criteria of separate messing and berthing and the extension of privileges (e.g., the time of the expiration of liberty or shore leave) are taken into account. A threefold division of officers is less obvious (and there is, of course, a system of four stripes rather than three) but junior officers include; Ensigns, Lieutenants Junior Grade, and Lieutenants. Senior officers include Lieutenant Commanders, Commanders, and Captains. Flag officers include Rear, Vice, and Full Admirals.

Army social organization is similar, although triangular infantry organization was replaced in 1957 by a pentomic plan. However, historically, Army units have been based on a three-in-one breakdown (Lease, 1919:67). A battalion consisted of three rifle companies, a rifle company of three rifle platoons, and a rifle platoon of three squads. A strong survival of triangular organization is found in the Boy Scouts, the American analog of primitive puberty initiation societies. The ranks include tenderfoot, second class, and first class scouts. Thereafter, the accumulation of merit badges and the satisfaction of various requirements permit a scout to attain the ranks of Star, Life, and Eagle Scout. An Eagle Scout may, upon the earning of additional merit badges, be awarded Eagle Palms: a Bronze Palm (5 badges), a Gold Palm (10 badges), or a Silver Palm (15 badges). The ritual use of three is also explicit in such items as: a triangular neckerchief: a Scout badge whose design is the fleur-de-lis; the Scout sign, a gesture whose most salient characteristic is three upstretched fingers; the Scout handclasp, accomplished by extending the left hand with the three middle fingers outstretched; and the Scout Oath, which consists of three parts.

Military material culture, so to speak, and military ritual demonstrate the identical pattern. Whether it be ship division into Forward, Amidships, and Aft or the color of anchor chain paint markings (to indicate how much chain is out) into red, white, and blue fifteen fathom lengths, the trichotomic principle prevails. Military music, that is to say, bugle calls, is based upon three notes, the triad. Noteworthy also is the use of fanfares on ritual or formal occasions. There are either three trumpets playing the tones of the triad in unison or playing three part harmony. Moreover, it may not be amiss to point out that in terms of bugle playing technique, the most frequently used method of increasing tonguing speed is known as triple-tonguing. Even more pertinent to the present inquiry is occurrence of triple meter. Ternary time is not common in primitive music, and thus its presence in Western and American music is all the rhythm employed in military ritual drumming. For instance, one pattern is based upon a series of three beats.

3-patterned musical notes

This may be contrasted with typical ritual drumming patterns of American Indian Culture in which the pattern number is most often four. One such is four beats with the first beat heavily accented. Note well that the concept of the triplet itself is quite a remarkable example of trichotomy. It is in essence the substitution of three notes in place of one. Although 3/8 does not equal 1/4, culturally sanctioned and conditioned aesthetics permit, if not encourage, the substitution of three eighth notes in place of one quarter note beat.

Nonmusical examples of military ritual include the sentry's challenge "Halt, who goes there?" "Advance and be recognized," and "Pass." At Officer's Candidate School (OCS) officer trainees during their three months sojourn (="ninety day wonders") learn of the three types of court martial: summary, special, and general. They may also learn that the final act of military funerals is the firing of three volleys. (One wonders if the act of an assassin in firing three shots at the President is purely fortuitous and one wonders further about the statement of the assassin of the assassin that he meant to fire three shots instead of one!) The twenty-one gun salute for the President appears to be a combination of two sacred numbers--- twenty-one is thrice seven.

The occurrence of three-symbolism in American religion is almost too obvious to require mention. In American culture, three major faiths are distinguished: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism. Judaism can be broken down into three types. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Of course, the Old and the New Testaments provide numerous examples. Noah who had three sons sent the dove out of the three-storied ark three times. (See Lehmann, 1914:18; and Lease, 1919:66 for other Old Testament examples.) Christian examples include the three Magi, Satan's three temptations of Christ, Peter's three denials of Christ, the three crucifixions at Calvary, the three Marys, the three nails, the three days intervening between the burial and the resurrection, and Christ's age of thirty-three. After the resurrection, Christ showed himself three times to his disciples (John 21:14) and asked Peter three times "Lovest thou me?" (John 21:17). Of course, the ultimate charter for belief in three is the concept of the Trinity, with its sacred confirmation of the notion of three-in-one. Christian culture includes the triptych, such mottoes as "faith, hope and charity," and a three-movement ritual gesture starting at the forehead to make the sign of the cross. As for American religions, one can see that the Mormons' reverence of the three Nephites is just as patterned as the addition of the concept of Purgatory in Catholicism to form a third alternative to the previously binary Heaven and Hell.

The nature of culture is such that if one finds a pattern in social organization and religion, one is likely to find that pattern manifested in time and language (or vice versa, of course). Whorf, in his celebrated analysis of the relation of thought and behavior to language, made special mention of the cultural relativity of time concepts. While his statement "The three-tense system of SAE (Standard Average European) verbs colors all our thinking about time" (1964:143) does lean perhaps a little too far in the direction of linguistic determinism, the keen insight is a valid one. It is of considerable historical interest that Brinton made the following statement in 1894: "The two universal categories of the understanding (or modes of perception), Space and Time, invariably present themselves in a threefold aspect: Time as the Past, the Present, the Future, as expressed in the grammar of every language; Space, as length, Breadth, and thickness; or, with reference to position, Above, Beneath, and Here." (1894:169, emphasis added). Brinton saw the relationship between grammatical categories and concepts of time. His error lay in assuming the universality of his own particular native categories. Certainly in American culture, the continuum of time (and admittedly the concept of continuum is itself culturally relative) is segmented into past, present, and future. The day may be divided binarily into night and day, but dawn and twilight provide middle terms at the two junctures. Day is also divided into morning, noon, and night. Moreover, the twenty-four hour day is also subject to tripartition. In certain types of work, e.g., in hospitals, there are commonly three eight-hour shifts. Noteworthy also is the formal way of referring to a particular day. The reference consists of three parts: month, day, and year, e.g., January 1, 1968, or 1/1/68. The principal time indicators, the watch and the calendar, refer to three units. The average watch has three hands: hour, minute, and second. Calendars indicate day, month, and year. It is of interest that many calendars, in addition to displaying the current month on any one page, also provide small displays of the month immediately preceding and the month which is to follow. This symbolizes a concern with both past and future while living in the present.

The past, present, and future trichotomy remains constant no matter what the time unit is. Whether one is concerned with day, week, month, or year, there is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The limiting nature of three is demonstrated by the fact that if one wishes to refer to, let us say, days other than those three, one must do so in reference to the two extremes, e.g., the day before yesterday, the day after tomorrow. There is no independent term available for measures outside of the basic three. In some instances, even dependent terms outside of the limiting three are lacking. Thus, one can say last night, tonight, and tomorrow night, but while one can refer easily to the night after tomorrow night. With weeks, months, or years, one can employ "last, this, and next," and thus weeks falling outside the extremes are the week before last and the week after next. Curiously enough, the same type of structure found in time applies to trinary linear kinship terminology. Ego has parents (= yesterday) and he has children (= tomorrow). Linear relatives beyond these two extremes, e.g., grandparents or grand children. Moreover, in either direction, there is something of a trinary terminological limit. Ego has parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, generational distinctions being signaled by a distinct prefix. Additional distinctions can be made only by successive repetition of the last prefix, e.g., great-great-grandparents. The same holds for ego's children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Note also the incremental repetition of one to three words in parent (1), grandparent (2), and great-grandparent (3). The time-kinship parallel is also obvious in American values. In a scheme like past, present, and future (or man, woman, and child), it is the third and last term which is valued most. Americans are future-oriented and to the amazement of their enemies, they tend to forget about the past. Similarly, they are child-oriented and they tend to forget about their elders, banishing them to old age homes or communities.

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My comments about the article's conclusion

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Herb O. Buckland