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Number 3 in American Culture

Three American Flags by Jasper Johns


By the late Professor Alan Dundes of the University of California at Berkeley

Allan Dundes

Professor Allan Dundes

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; bi-partition, 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 tracheotomies 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 form “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 tracheotomies 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 folk tales 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 folk songs 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 auctioneers 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.

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:


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:


Square Sections

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 up stretched 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.


Triplet beats

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.

Still another time trichotomy stems from regarding noon as a midpoint. Time is denoted in reference to noon inasmuch as A.M. and P.M. are before and after noon respectively. In the same fashion, historical time in American culture is measured with respect to the birth of Christ. Years are either B.C. or A.D. However, the initial points of reference are separate from the periods of “before” and “after,” just as the present is in theory distinct from the past and the future. Thus noon is neither A.M. nor P.M. Twelve o’clock is ambiguous and one is required to say twelve midnight or twelve noon. It should be noted that in Europe generally, an unambiguous four- digit time indicator system is employed. The practical advantages of a four-digit symbol such as 1530 over a three-digit 3:30 are obvious—there are two three-thirties daily—and this is probably why the American military has adopted the more efficient four-digit system. Incidentally, a possible mathematical-logical analogue for the “before” and “after” terms in reference to an initial point us provided by the usual ways of relating one term to another. Either a equals b; a is less than b, or a is much less than b are not culturally defined as relevant or significant. There are only the three possibilities. Similarly we have three ways of relating man to nature, man subjugated to nature (less than); man in nature (equal); and man over nature (greater than); in interpersonal relations, an individual is inferior (or subordinate), equal, or superior (super ordinate) to another.

The discussion of time is in part a discussion of the terminology of time and is thus a discussion of language. In any case, the very nature of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would make one suspect that if trichotomy were a pattern of American culture, it would also be found in American English. However, the greater part of Whorf’s own consideration of English suggests that English has primarily binary features. Whorf emphasizes that there are basically nouns and verbs (1964:215), with the nouns of two sorts: individual nouns and mass nouns (1964:140). Whorf also draws attention to the fundamental categorical distinction between singular and plural. All this leads him to see some of the linguistic correlates of the strong tradition of philosophical dualism in Western civilization and he cites the example of the dichotomy of form and substance (1964:141). (He might also have cited active/passive, mind/body, spirit/flesh, and many other polarities.) While Whorf is undoubtedly correct in his fundamentally binary analysis, there are some trinary features besides the three-tense system which he might have mentioned. The pronouns are first person, second person, and third person. (The names of these distinctions are themselves part of the pattern.) In modern English there are no more than three distinct forms of any one pronoun, e.g., he, his, him. Third person nominative singular is divided into he, she, and it, corresponding to the genders masculine, feminine, and neuter. Hoijer’s argument (1954:97) that this is strictly a grammatical survival with no semantic correlate is somewhat beside the point, even assuming he is correct. Whether it is actually part of linguistic structure or whether it is simply part of what traditional grammarians say is linguistic structure, the fact remains that in our educational system, the distinction between the three genders is made. What members of a culture think about their language (i.e., folk linguistics) can influence other aspects of culture probable almost as much as the actual linguistic patterning. Linguists with their concern for the latter have tended to ignore folk linguistics, that is folk analytical categories. Brown (1960:342) has put the matter well in her proposition that “many of the perceptions we derive from language do not arise from anything inherent in the structure of the language itself, but as the result of what we have been taught about it.” That American grammarians analyze English sentences into actor/action/goal or subject/predicate/object is important culturally, regardless of whether or not this is in fact an accurate delineation of English structure. Grammarians also distinguish simple, compound, and complex sentences. In punctuation rules, one finds three major medial marks: comma, semicolon, and colon, whose orthographic symbolism itself reflects trichotomic structuring (a, ab, and b. there are also three principal terminal marks: period, question mark, and exclamation point. The latter marks are allegedly indicators of the three major sentence types: declarative, interrogative, and exclamatory. In another instance of orthographic symbolism, one finds that ellipsis, and indefinite quantity, is signaled by the definite convention of using three periods or asterisks.

Of course, there are actual trinary structural features of English. One of the most important of these is the number of degrees employed with modifiers— specifically, the comparative and superlative. One might even go so far as to conjecture that it is the “good, better, best” paradigm, perhaps more than any other single factor, which has encouraged the concept formation of three classes or three types of merchandise sizes, quality, etc. In a recent study, Deonna has brilliantly pointed out (1954:415) that three is in part a semantic derivative of the superlative degree and cites the roots “ter,” “tri,” and “tre,” as evidence. In French, for example, “très” is a superlative. (In English, one might think of terrific and tremendous. Moreover, etymologies of triumph —and trump in the game of bridge—might show that three was all-powerful, just as the origins of terminus, in the sense of limit and eternity—ternity is an obsolete form of trinity—in the sense of time without limit, or past plus present plus future, or as a synonym for the deity—who is tripartite—may stem from an archaic ur-three root.) In any event, Whorf’s distinction between nouns and verbs notwithstanding, tripartition in English is an important structural feature. The division of time and history into threes would appear to be influenced by verb action tense (past, present, future), while the division of objects or object qualities into three would seem to be related to the degrees of comparison (correct, more correct, most correct.) Whether the relationship of linguistic feature to other aspects of culture is causal or only correlative, the fact that there are trichotomies of verb tense, modifier degree, pronoun category, and gender tends to support the notion that patterning underlying a culture generally will be evident in language.

That trichotomy is a cognitive category in the sense that individuals tend to perceive in threes is suggested by the results of experiments in gestalt psychology. Continua involving both sight and sound were segmented into groups of three (Köhler, 1959:83, 89). However, experiments such as the classic pioneering ones made by Wertheimer (1923) did not take the pattern number three into account. Subjects did tend to see things in threes, but Wertheimer attributed his results to such factors as organization (in terms of proximity) and the grouping of similar forms (such as three dots opposed to three circles). The results might be more a matter of “three” gestalt, an explanation which would no doubt have delighted Wertheimer. Subjects might, for example, see threes even in a continuous line of dots. In any case, it is difficult to isolate such variables as proximity and form similarity when three figures are used in the experiment.

This brings us to an important theoretical point and one of the primary purposes of the present paper. Thus far, an attempt has been made to show that the pattern of trichotomy does in fact exist as a native category in Western and, more specifically, American culture. What remains to be seen, however, is how such a native category can unconsciously affect the formation of supposedly objective analytical categories. This is the really insidious part of cultural patterning. No individual can escape his culture and its built-in cultural cognitive categories. Yet many individuals think they have escaped, and they claim to have described the nature of objective reality in culture-free terms. But often what scientists and scholars present as bona fide analytical categories are in fact ethnocentric extensions of their own native categories. While a few analysts specify that their trichotomic models are solely for heuristic purposes (and certainly a tripartite scheme would have both mnemonic and aesthetic value in American culture, one is in an excellent position to perceive the arbitrary and culturally determined nature of many of our accepted “objective” analytic schemes.

No doubt there will be those who will be offended by the implication that their analytical categories are but folk or native categories in disguise. They may claim that the analytical categories in question really do correspond to objective reality. (This would also be the argument of those defending the notion of the Trinity.) Others, with a penchant for nit-picking, will be quick to point out that some of the analytical schemes here presented have long been discarded. The point is that all of the following analytical schemes did or do have some standing in American culture. Not just Gaul, but the whole world is divided into three parts. There is animal, vegetable, and mineral. (These and other categories are so deeply embedded in our culture that it may be difficult for some to see their arbitrariness.) Yet is there an absolute difference between plant and animal life or is there a continuum? Similar examples may be taken from almost any discipline. Entomologists define insects as those members of the phylum Arthropoda in which the body is divided into three parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. The question is: are insects truly morphologically tripartite or do we simply see them as tripartite? And what of the trichotomy explicit in the metamorphic continuum of some insects into larva, pupa, and adult? Are the three stages simply a reflection of the same cultural convention which suggests that literature has a beginning, a middle, and an end or that plays commonly be written in three acts?

At least we are consistent, for all the world is conceived and perceived in tripartite terms—by us. The continuum of states of matter is neatly divided into solid, liquid, and gas. The projection of this scheme to the entire earth results in distinguishing land (solid), sea (liquid), and air (gas). These in turn are subdivided. The air or atmosphere may be broken down into troposphere, stratosphere, and ionosphere, while the earth may be divided into three types of climate zones: frigid, temperate, and torrid. (Cf. the spacial- geographical divisions such as North, Central (or Middle), and South America or the East, the Middle West, and the West.) As the world is divided, so is man. The human ear is divided into the outer, middle, and inner ear, the brain into cerebrum, cerebellum, and medulla, the small intestine into the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. Are these divisions any less arbitrary than the segmentation of human voice range continuum into soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto (female), and tenor, baritone, and bass (male)? But the issue is not just taxonomic or classificatory. When physicians prescribe dosages in threes, e.g., one pill every three hours or three pills a day, or when infants are given a three-in-one DPT (diphtheria toxoid, pertussis vaccine, and tetanus toxoid) shot or a series of three polio shots, the question is whether this is the most efficacious procedure, medically speaking, or not. Perhaps the ritual element is in fact an additional beneficial feature.

One can pick up an elementary textbook in any discipline and find numerous instances of three-determined thinking. It is really astonishing to realize that anthropologists, students of cultural conditioning, have been so culture-bound in their theoretical formulations. Among the numerous versions of a three stages of man theory (cf. Comte, Hegel, and Vico), one thinks of Morgan’s savagery, barbarism (which was subdivided into Opening, Middle, and Closing periods), and civilization, and Frazer’s stages of magic, religion, and science. Other obvious examples of tripartition include Van Gennep’s classic analysis of rites of passage in which he distinguishes rites of separation, transition, and incorporation.

There is just as much three-conditioning evident in the other branches of anthropology. In physical anthropology, the traditional conventional number of races is three: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, although the inadequacy of the classification is well known. Similarly, European peoples are divided into northern, central, and southern, that is, Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean. In the study of body measurement and typology, tripartition is also found. (The folk system of measuring females in terms of bust, waist, and hips is in the same pattern.) In craniology, for example, the measurements of the various craniometric indices fall invariable into one of three categories (cf. Comas, 1960:406-12). Archaeology is even more three-ridden. The three-age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron is still in vogue (Heizer), but more important are the subdivisions of time periods. Ages are divided into three. Thus the Stone Age is commonly divided into Old, Middle, and New, i.e., Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. The Paleolithic can then be subdivided into Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic. The Upper Paleolithic can then be broken down into Aurignacian, Solutrean, Magdalenian. If this weren’t enough evidence to indicate that archaeologists are culture-bound, one should consult V. Gordon Childe’s argument that tripartition is a necessary means of establishing chronological sequences in archaeology (1956:66) and that this is true, not because of any Hegelian metaphysics or trinitarian mysticism, but because of the very nature of the material to be serrated. The question is, of course, whether the method of tripartition is really dictated by the nature of the material or is it rather dictated by the nature of the culture of the archaeologist? If human history is a continuum, then the segmentation of a portion of that continuum into ages, stages, or levels is arbitrary.

Anthropology is typical insofar as the three-patterning of its scholarship is concerned. It would be easy to cite hundreds of examples from other disciplines. Yet anthropologists do not seem to have been aware of the pattern. Whorf, one of the pioneers in the study of the cultural conditioning of thought patterns, failed to see the influence of tripartition on his own work. His coinage of the three-word phrase “Standard Average European” is an example. His decision to compare three isolates of English—“clean,” “with,” “ramrod,”— with three isolates from Shawnee would be another. (Note also his three-part figure in which he shows how one Hopi word equals three English words and how one English word equals three Eskimo words.) Another indication that Anthropologists are not aware of their cultural propensity for tripartition is found in Edward Hall’s The Silent Language. Hall, in collaboration George L. Trager, developed an elaborate tripartite scheme which distinguished what was termed formal, informal, and technical levels. However, Hall, an expert on the implicit assumptions of various cultures, claims that Americans had a bipolar way of analyzing data and that “The ease with which Americans tend to polarize their thoughts about events may make it difficult for them to embrace an approach which employs three categories rather than two” (1959:66).

Having demonstrated that the number three is a folk category in American culture, a folk category which has made inroads into the various analytic categories of academic disciplines, it remains to be seen what the meaning, if any, of the category is. It is one thing to describe a cultural category; it is another to speculate about its origin and meaning. Does the category stem from the family group of father, mother, and child? Is it a reflection of the divine nature of the universe as defined by trinitarian Christian doctrine? A Whorfian would no doubt place language rather than social organization or religion at the source. Thus a Whorfian might claim that the tense system, the first, second, third person distinctions, and the “good, better, best” paradigm were the roots of the pattern. A Freudian would argue along different lines (Glenn). Freud suggested that the number three was a masculine symbol, the phallus cum testiculis. 1

Footnote: 1Freud was by no means the first to suggest that the number three might be related to phallic symbolism. See, for example, Thomas Inman, Ancient Faiths Embodied in Ancient Names, I, 89. As a matter of fact, the folk had also interpreted the number three in phallic terms long before Freud. For an example from modern Greek folklore, see Curt Wachsmuth, Das alte Griechenland im neuen (Bonn, 1864), p. 89, n. 24. Since anthropologists frequently “discover” data which is already known (to the people in the culture under study), they can understand how a modern student of symbols could “discover” an interpretation which was in some sense already known to the people who use these symbols.

This is most interesting in the light of Freud’s own work: e.g., Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, or the id, ego, superego classification. Incidentally, the standard kinship notation employed by anthropologists would tend to support Freud’s view. The triangle represents a male while a circle represents a female. However, the convention of three as a masculine symbol is more probably a manifestation of the traditional symbolism of Western civilization that a cause or origin of Trichotomy. Only if one were to argue that male as opposed to female thought was trichotomized and that male thought was a compensatory activity for not being able to give birth to children as females do could one make a case for a most hypothetical origin theory. The only child a man produces is a brainchild. His intellectual project serves as his “baby.” His products bear his stamp, the number three, the mark of masculinity. Since the majority of Western constructs and classification schemes have been devised by men rather than women, this could account for the preoccupation with three.2

Footnote: 2One small bit of personal biographical data does support this thesis. The author first began to jot down examples of “threes” while awaiting the arrival of his third child. However, it was not until some time after the child’s birth that it occurred to the author that his mentally straining to produce examples of three might be a curious idiosyncratic form of intellectual couvade!

(Alan Dundes was born in 1934, which, if he wrote this article sometime in 1967 to be published in 1968, would mean he was 33 years of age at the time.)

This type of explanation would also make clear why aspects of American culture which are exclusively masculine, e.g., the military, the Boy Scouts, baseball, are especially three-ridden. (Note also that the Christian Trinity is all masculine. This would be further evidence that three is male creativity denying or replacing female creativity.) However, like most psychological explanations, this one is highly speculative. One must conclude that it is difficult if not impossible to state with any degree of certainty what the ultimate origins of trichotomy might be.

One thing is certain though, and that is that trichotomy is a pattern of American Culture. Whether it is related to masculinity or male mental creativity or not, it is, and will probably continue to be, an important cognitive category in American (an Old World) culture. As for how individuals learn about the pattern, there are probable many sources. Three dimensions of space, the three tenses of time, and the good-better-best paradigm all exert some influence. But an American three-year-old has already been exposed to the category in folkloristic form, perhaps before he realizes the space, time, and linguistic features. For are there not three men in a tub? three bags of Baa Baa Black Sheep’s wool? three little kittens who lost their mittens? three little pigs? Is not the third item called for by Old King Cole his fiddlers three? Is there an American child who has not heard the story of the three bears? This latter story is a narrative listing of trichotomies in which the mediating third term is invariable “just right.” (Note that the third term is associated with the child bear rather than the mother and father bears.) The child is conditioned by his folklore to expect three and his culture does not disappoint him. Language, social organization, religion, and almost all other aspects of American culture confirm the pattern.

Trichotomy exists but it is not the nature of nature. It is part of the nature of culture. At this point, if anyone is skeptical about there being a three-pattern in American culture, let him give at least three good reasons why.


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“Ethical periods.”

Müller, Raimund, 1903: in XXX Jahresbericht der K.K. Staats- Oberrealschule in Teschen am Schlusse des Schuljahres 1902-1903, pp. 1-23. Teschen: K. und K. Hofbuchdruckerei Karl Prochaska.

“Die zahl e in sage, dichtung und kunst.”

Olrik, Axel, 1909: Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum 51: 1-12. Reprinted in translation in Alan Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore, pp. 129-41. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

“Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung.”

Paine, Levi Leonard, 1901: Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

The Ethnic Trinities and Their Relations to the Christian Trinity.

Parsons, Elsie Clews, 1916: Scientific Monthly 3: 596-600.

“The favorite number of the Zuni.”

Post, Emily, 1960: 10th ed. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.


Seifert, Josef Leo, 1954: Wien, München: Verlag Herold.

Sinndeutung des Mythos: Die Trinität in den Mythen der Urvölker.

Simmel, Georg, 1902: American Journal of Sociology 8: 1-46, 158-96.

“The number of members as determining the sociological form of the group.”

Strand, T.A., 1958: New York: Exposition Press.

Tri-Ism: The Theory of the Trinity in Nature, Man and His Works.

Tavenner, Eugene, 1916: Transactions of the American Philological Association 47: 117-43.

“Three as a magic number in Latin Literature.”

Usener, H., 1903: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 58: 1-47, 161-208, 321-62.


Wertheimer, Max, 1923: Psychologische Forschung 4: 301-50.

“Untersuchungen zur lehre von der gestalt.”

Whorf, Benjamin L., 1964: Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Language, Thought and Reality.


By Professor Alan Dundes






1 thought on “Number 3 in American Culture

  1. […] American culture traditionally uses three names: first, middle, and last. We abbreviate in English using threes. Learn your “ABCs” and “1, 2, 3s.” We are taught “writing, reading, and ‘rithmatic” in schools. We naturally abbreviate phrases into three letters, like: “LOL” and “BRB” and “DOB.” Three-leaf clovers are lucky. […]

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