The idiomatic uses of three

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 1:43pm

I’ve always found idiomatic language to be more useful and fun than direct speech. My grandmother, when I would visit her as a kid, would often announce that she was “going to spend a penny” after dinner, meaning that she was excusing herself to the restroom. I never understood what she meant when I was really young, but after I grew up, and developed my own code of idioms and phrases, I asked my mom. My grandmother is from Kent, England, where public restrooms formerly had coin-operated locks. In order to use them, one had to drop a penny into the slot. My mother told me that idiomatic and rhyming language was commonly used in that area of England, where Cockney rhyming slang took hold. Once, my grandmother used the phrase “apples and pears” for “stairs.” I never really understood that one.

My father, an N.J. native, has his own set of idioms and phrases. He and I like to make fun of common business jargon, like “to put something on the parking lot,” meaning to save the idea for a later day, or “to put a pin in something,” which means about the same. Growing up, I was told to “hold my horses” when I was impatient and to “take my lumps” when something got the better of me. When I got a little heady, he would tell me to stop being a “smartmouth” when I was out of turn, or to “stop busting his chops” when I was in the right. 

As they were such a mystery in earlier parts of my life, idioms became increasingly interesting modes of communication, carrying their own histories and contexts. They reveal as much about the speaker’s thoughts and feelings as they do the speaker’s personal background. I’ve never heard anyone in the United States utter the phrase “spend a penny”; if anything, I’ve heard the crude “take a piss” from guys my age. By the same token, I’ve only heard business jargon from my parents, corporate presentations and Ross students. (Language can be an insidious tool.) Each idiom carries a history and a basic truth, and those that we employ tell others about where we come from. One of my favorites, one that I return to time and time again, is the phrase “two is company, three is a crowd.”

The phrase finds its origins in the notion that the symmetry and parity of two is “right.” Between two things, there is a clear thing-one-thing-two, self-and-other relationship, but as soon as you introduce a third object, the system grows in complexity. No longer are you dealing with one relationship — you’re dealing with three, unique relationships, between one and two, two and three and one and three. The paragon of this idiom is the love triangle, depicted in countless works of art and culture: Betty, Veronica and Archie in “Archie Comics”; Bella, Edward and Jacob in “The Twilight Saga”; Katniss, Peeta and Gale in “The Hunger Games”; I could go on. A relationship between two people is cool, I guess, but you want to know what’s really cool? Making things complex by adding another player.

It’s easy to have a presumptive harmony when you have one or two things: The beauty of singularity and unity of one object, the symmetry or diametric opposition of two things. But with three, it’s easy to unbalance. How far apart are these things? Which two elements of the system are closer, more alike, and how does that affect the third thing? There is a whole field of mathematics devoted to the relationship between three points: Trigonometry. Since you’re reading the Arts section, I’ll just give you the meat and potatoes of the subject. Trigonometry reveals that there is a method to the madness of the lengths and angles between these three points. Trigonometry can be applied to countless subjects, and it’s always funny to remember that locating the apparent positions of stars in astronomy is possible because of triangles. In art, too, the tension of three finds usefulness in the “rule of thirds.” A centered single object or two objects in any relationship are boring to the eye. Offsetting the presumed harmony of unity or symmetry makes the eye look a little harder at a painting or a photography. Perhaps there is beauty in the tension of three.

Let’s return to the idiom, though. Three is a crowd, sure, as the chance for exclusion and “a loser” always exists in a love triangle, yet three is also complex and beautiful. Within three, there’s a productive friction that leads to great works of art and science — the same friction produces tension and hard feelings in relationships. It’s easy to feel behind the eight ball in love and life (just look at the crazy things that Bella, Edward and Jacob do competing for one another’s affections), but remember that two — er, three — can play at that game.