Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Never Two Without Three

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 9, 2011

The saying “never two without three” means that something, either positive or negative, that has already occurred twice before is likely to happen a third time. It is a direct translation of the French proverb, “Jamais deux sans trois” and the Italian proverb, “Mai due senza tre.”

Just a few years back, in a story published on September 18, 2006, USA Today interviewed then-French President, Jacques Chirac.  The interviewer stated that perhaps this would be the last time — this interview being the second such interview during his time in office — that USA Today would have the opportunity of interview Jacques Chirac as the President of France.  His response to that comment was this:

You never know. There’s an old proverb in French that says “never two without three.”

In the Indian Express newspaper published in Madras, Tamilnadu, India dated November 3, 1940,  an article appeared entitled, “Axis-Vichy Settlement Chances Evaporating” that reported:

Expectation of the an early settlement between France and the Axis have evaporated.  This wide-spread conviction in well-informed circles proves the oppositeness of the old French proverb “Jamais Deux Sans Trois” for it was already being taken for granted that Hitler’s wheedling of France had miscarried and many are at least doubtful whether Mussolini’s bolt in Greece has not misfired.

On October 24, 1935 a staff correspondent wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor out of Boston (MA) entitled, “France Awaits Radical Swing To Left Or Right.”  It was the eve of the re-opening of Parliament in France and due to pressure from an international crisis at the time, the Radical Party knowing it held the fact of the then-French Cabinet in its hands.  It read in part:

The annual Congress of the Radical Party has resulted under somewhat similar circumstances in the overthrow of the French Government. There is a popular French proverb which says, “Never two without three.”

Agatha Christie’s short story “Never Two Without Three” is a Miss Marple story from the book “The Tuesday Murders” published in 1933.  The UK title was “The Thirteen Problems.” The original title for the story was “A Christmas Tragedy” but as was the way of publishers back in the day, the editor of the short story collection was renamed “Never Two Without Three.”

The publication “Italica” carried an article in 1983 entitled, “James Joyce and the Italian Language” in which readers learned that James Joyce’s elective affinity for Italian began in 1894 at the age of 12. James Joyce, it would appear, was familiar with the Italian proverb, “Mai due senza tre.”

Interestingly enough, Idiomation did find both the French and the English versions of this saying on the Hennequin Venteuil Coat of Arms.  The Blason de Venteuil, which is the crest from the Champagne region in France, dates back to January 13, 1722.

Try as Idiomation did, Idiomation was unable to track the phrase back in French, Italian or English any further than the early 1700s even though it appears to have already been established in both English and French conversational language as a proverb in 1722.

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