Robert Benchley: The Word “Three”


I’m a know-it-all. By this I mean simply that I assume you have an opinion about David Rice Atchison, and whatever it is I am prepared to argue that you are wrong. It’s amazing that I don’t spend more time running away from people meaning to slap me. But I credit that for my always loving the mock-explanatory essay. I love the real things, certainly, but the humorist who can capture the rhythms of explanation while producing nonsense — well, that’s wonderful. Robert Benchley in My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew provides one of the most perfect examples of this. From the fourth paragraph on there’s barely a misfired word or a weak sentence, and the first three paragraphs are a good warming up. The antepenultimate paragraph alone is worth learning what “antepenultimate” means.

The Word “Three”

I don’t know whether you care or not, but etymological circles are in an uproar. They have just discovered what the word “three” comes from.

They have known the derivation of all the other words in the number-table (as, for example, “two” from “Tuesday,” or the second day in the week if you don’t count Sunday as the first, and “five” from the god Woden, or Thor, or Buttercup, and so forth and so forth), but they have never been able to figure out where the word “three” came from.


A little fellow from the University of Welf discovered it. He doesn’t speak English himself, but he is awfully interested in people who do. It was during one of these periods (I should have told you that he has periods when he looks up words) that he found out about the word “three.” He was looking up the word “tree” and, not speaking English well, he thought that it was pronounced “three.” You can see how that might very well be.

The word “three” comes to us direct from the French, collect. The original word was (and still is) tri, which means a sorting, or, as in card-playing, a deal. Thus, one would say: “Give me a tri,” or “How is your tri?” meaning “Give me a deal” or “How is your deal?” If one were really speaking in French, of course, all the other words in the sentence would be French, too. (i.e., “Donnez-moi un tri” or “Votre tri, ça marche?”)

Just how the word tri got into the French language is a mystery which occupies practically nobody’s attention at the moment. It is supposed to have come from the Creole patois of New Orleans, and was used to signify hurry or lethargy. The old form of the word was blo, which gradually was shortened into tri. Later the whole word was dropped from the language by a rising vote.

The Normans brought the word into England just before the Norman Conquest. In their use of it an extra syllable was added, making it triouille, meaning white-bait or Roger crab. We still are no nearer than we were to finding out how it came to mean three of anything. Don’t think that I’m not just as worried as you are.

With the advent of water-power and the subsequent water-pistol, Luke (Luke was the fellow I was speaking of a few yards back) didn’t know what to do. Unless I am greatly mistaken, this paragraph belongs in another article.

Well, anyway, the people who are making up the English language found themselves with names for every digit except “three.” And, as there were three of quite a lot of things (Marx Brothers, blind mice, wishes and cent stamps) it got increasingly embarrassing not to have a word to express “three.” They tried using the word “four,” but it ended only in confusion, especially when addition or subtraction was at stake.


Suddenly someone said: “Why don’t we take the word tri from the French? They’ll never miss it, and they owe it to us anyway.” This seemed like a logical plan, and everybody but one man agreed to it. He later committed suicide when he found out how successfully it had worked out. “I was a blind fool,” he wrote.

As it sounded rather common to say tri, they put in an h and substituted a double e for the i. This made as pretty a “three” as you could wish, and from that day on it was a part of the language. They tried it out in a little rhyme: “One-two-three—buckle my shoe,” and it went so well that soon everybody was saying it.

Frankly, I don’t know whether I like it as a word or not. It still sounds a little slangy.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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