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MetaFilter Archive – The Book of Threes

December 5, 2001

Testing, 1 2 3. Madness or obsession? The Book of Threes collects things that come in threes. And it's not the only one. What does this stem from?

posted by rodii at 6:47 AM PST (21 comments total)

"Well-known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye."

–Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two_Birds
posted by rodii at 6:48 AM PST on December 5

"Shakespeares plays are divided into three categories: comedies, dramas and histories."

Only by some. Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, Pericles, and others are often considered to be romances.
posted by starvingartist at 6:55 AM PST on December 5

"Don't forget Douglas Adams' increasingly misnamed trilogy The 'Hitchhiker Trilogy.'"

And this would be a three, how? This is a half-assed concept, methinks.
posted by starvingartist at 6:56 AM PST on December 5

Dunno… I once knew a guy who was obsessed with threes. I think he was obsessive-compulsive, though.
posted by phalkin at 6:57 AM PST on December 5

Shakespeare's plays also have three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is TOO weird.

Seriously, I've heard of binary theory and people are always talking in dichotomies, but what theories relate to 3's?
posted by uftheory at 6:59 AM PST on December 5

phalkin.. maybe he was a 3 sevant.. his genious lay in seeing patterns of 3. Good thing he wasnt a pattern 1 sevant those people go nuts.
posted by stbalbach at 7:03 AM PST on December 5

Charles Fleischer, the guy who was the voice of Roger Rabbit, used to do a stand-up bit about something he called "Moleeds", where he would go on about the mystical properties of certain number combinations. I think his numbers were 27 and 37, but you get the idea.
posted by briank at 7:19 AM PST on December 5

Old Spanish proverb: "no hay dos sin tres" (no two without three). Always seems to hold true.
posted by Voyageman at 7:33 AM PST on December 5

i live with a french girl who remarked the other day, when an extra person turned up for dinner
"if you can feed two, you can feed three mon ami"

(that extra person was me, she was cooking for her boyfriend, heh heh..)
posted by Frasermoo at 7:36 AM PST on December 5

Nature isn't based on the numbers 1, 2, 27, 37 or even 42…'s all about the number 47.
posted by thewittyname at 7:37 AM PST on December 5

"The Ramans do everything in threes!"
posted by bondcliff at 7:38 AM PST on December 5

Comedy has something called the rule of threes, where you build to your punchline with two setups – can't think of an example, but they're not hard to come by if you listen carefully.
posted by Sinner at 7:46 AM PST on December 5

The "mathematics" list is so bad…. Holy cow.

3 is the third prime number

(Actually, no: 1 is not prime.)

1+1+1=3 (three ones is three)

(Not only that, but 3=3 too! Imagine that!)

And it gets worse from there. It simply makes no sense.
posted by mattpfeff at 7:49 AM PST on December 5

Comedy Rule of Three:

"So Muhammed Ali is allowed to fight again; he wasn't there, for a while. Unusual job, anyway, beating people up, but the government wanted him to change jobs. The government wanted him to kill people. (one) Muhammed Ali said, "Wellllll… I'll beat 'em up , but I don't want to kill 'em."(two) And the government said, "Hahahahha, well, if you don't kill 'em, we won't let you beat 'em up!" (three)"

("Muhammed Ali," George Carlin, 1972)
posted by headspace at 8:06 AM PST on December 5

What does this stem from?

The Tao begets the One,
The One begets the two,
The two begets the three (however)
The three begets the ten thousand things.
posted by danOstuporStar at 8:33 AM PST on December 5

3 is the first positive integer for which n! is not equal to n.
posted by moz at 8:46 AM PST on December 5

"Three parts to blood: Red Blood Cells, White Blood Cells, Platelets."

where's the plasma? feh.
posted by tolkhan at 8:53 AM PST on December 5

in my senoir english class my teach went off about the signifacance of the number 3 in shakespeares plays and in a lot of literature, i think i rmember it being because of the holy trinity : man word light?
posted by Satapher at 9:44 AM PST on December 5

Not to be confused with The Book of Three.

hmm… there are exactly three natural numbers between one and three inclusive, but that doesn't count. But the Greeks would have said there were only two numbers there, anyway, two and three. That'd make three the lowest odd number. And it's the lowest prime, too, innit? Do I remember correctly that two's not considered prime? But even the Greeks could have told you that three's the least number of sides you can have on a polygon. And there are three spatial dimensions! (Oh, but it's ever so fun to try and imagine it otherwise.)

There's a stack of three books next to my computer, but who knows how long that will last?

"What I tell you three times is true!", says the Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark, and Haldane later quotes it.

"Third party" is how we usually refer to alternative political parties in the U.S., even though there are a bunch of them. Is that a general rule with three part divisions? That they'll be composed of two things that make up some sort of natural pair, and then another thing that stands apart from that pair somehow? thesis, antithesis, synthesis… yes, no, mu… beginning, middle, end (beginning and end are solidly defined, "middle"'s just sorta the rest of it, though I guess that's not really good in something skillfully written)… lawful, chaotic, neutral… hmm… human, animal, god? Aye, but what's the odd one out in that list? Almost want to say human is.

In Goethe's thing about animal morphology… can't remember the title, he's trying to do with animals the same thing he did with plants in the Metamorphosis of Plants… the best he does at describing a general for for some kinda ur-animal is to say that it's composed of three parts, basically a top, middle, and bottom. I want to link to something, but who spends their time putting Goethean science on the web?


three, sir!

posted by moss at 10:08 AM PST on December 5

More on comedy's Rule of Three… It is significant but not how one might think.

"There was a priest, a minister and a rabbi … ."

Most of those watercooler jokes have an element of three in them somewhere. The first one sets up the routine for the audience. The second one follows the momentum of the first and is mildly amusing but repetitive. Nothing remarkably different happens so the audience is theoretically prepared for the predictable to happen.

"..the first two items in a list are routine, but the third item is the big punchline that knocks you back in your chair."

The third one has to be logical in some way, but approaches the same thing from a different direction. It turns the predictable on its head and causes the surprise in the listener's mind that engenders a laugh.

This is most noticable in Billy Cosby's humor. I am distressed that I can't find anywhere on the 'Net a good Bill Cosby link that features his material. He's a fine architect of humor, and has most perfected the science of humor. I was about to launch into several paragraphs of examples. Suffice it to say you can find on your own examples of three in practically every comedy routine Bill's ever done. Most notably, Tonsils, Chicken Heart, Chocolate Cake, Noah, and The Same Thing Happens Every Night. Three is all over the place in Bill Cosby's work. Most of Bill's contemporaries like Steve Allen and Lenny Bruce also incorporated the Rule of Three often. If something works, why mess with it?

This is not consistent however. because a good comedian knows when to break the rule of three. Stephen Wright's work often dismisses the rule of three altogether. Instead he's focusing on the premise and momentum that he assumes is already in his audience's head. Then he just offers the punchlines in a deadbeat delivery that while monotone and slow, results in a rapidfire of jokes, because he's minimalized the need for a setup entirely. "I bought some powdered water but I don't know what to add." There's no rule of three there.

I think ultimately someone could create a project like this for any number, and find enough examples of life events to fill a book. That doesn't necessarily mean any single number is any more or less unique to life. They're all unique.

I have a copy of something called The Bob Book which spends an entire book praising the unique blandness that is Bob. It offers biographies and reactions from a number of Bobs throughout history. One could do the same with any human name and try to find similarities among them, but after reading the book I didn't walk away thinking that Bob Dylan and Bob Newhart were in any way comparable beyond their first name. It's entertaining, but absurd and pointless. Some of the most entertaining things are absurd and pointless, but there's nothing poignant here.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:12 AM PST on December 5

Bob has three letters!
posted by spunkster at 12:24 PM PST on December 5

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