November 27, 2004

Twos and Threes

Geoff Pullum has just examined here a rule of thumb for practical reasoning, the OICTIQ:

What the Once-is-Cool-Twice-is-Queer (OICTIQ) principle is saying is that in the realm of human behavior a single event can be dismissed as sporadic, but you have to take it seriously when you find a pattern repeated twice or more, especially within a short space of time. I want to suggest that this is in fact a rather useful rule of thumb for linguists and philologists.

Or, to put it negatively, and with apologies to (the heirs and assigns of) Jacqueline Susann: Once is Not Enough (OINE).

Sometimes it's twice that's crucial, more often three times; once could be an accident, twice a coincidence, but three times is a trend. The Rule of Three (ROT).

Back in February, I began a thread in the American Dialect Society mailing list on a manifestation of the ROT, a formula -- a snowclone even -- that I'll call "X3":

X3: The three most important Xs in Y are: Z, Z, Z. (conveying something like 'the only really important X in Y is Z')

The ADS-L discussion quickly turned to other manifestations of the ROT, but eventually yielded some information on X3 in particular. Here's a summary of what I now know.

It started innocently enough. On 2/8 I posted (in lower-case mode):

a commentator on NPR's Sunday Morning Edition today (2/8/04) claimed that the three most important (electoral) issues in michigan are: "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
this is (i think) a play on the real estate cliche that the three most important considerations in buying a house are: "Location, location, location". location-location-location itself has been extended to a great many domains besides real estate; to appreciate this, google on "location location location" and sample some of the roughly 218,000 sites listed.
... has anyone assembled some collection of instances of the formula? (they are all over the place.) has anyone looked at the history? (is location-location-location in the real estate domain the earliest exemplar in english? in any case, what's the earliest citation for an exemplar?)

Since then, I've collected several more instances of X3:

David Pogue, "State of the Art" column in the NYT Circuits section, 3/18/04, p. E1, "A TV That Cuts All Cords": Every industry has its marketing buzzwords. In the food business, you've got your "all natural" and, lately, your "low-carb." In the auto market, it’s "G.P.S.," "ABS" and "AWD." But in the consumer-technology racket, the three hottest buzzwords are, in no particular order, "wireless," "wireless" and "wireless."
Steven Greenhouse, "It’s Not Just About Jobs, but Where the Jobs Are". NYT Week in Review, 9/5/04, p. 3: "Our longest-serving governor, Jim Rhodes, used to say there are three critical issues in the election: the first is jobs, the second is jobs, and the third is jobs," said Andrew Doehrl, president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Corey Taylor, “Field of Creams”, interview with porn model Gregg, Unzipped 11/04, p. 19: East coast stud Gregg is hotter than the Florida sun in summer. Originally from Dover, Del., Gregg moved to Tampa Bay because of "the weather, the weather, and when I really stop and think about it further, I would have to say the weather."

Unfortunately, back then I chose to call the formula "The Rule of Three", which invited everyone to veer away from the topic at hand. In my experience on discussion groups, such invitations are hardly ever resisted. We were off and running.

Alice Faber (2/8) introduced the joke formula "practice, practice, practice" (many, many instances), and Sam Clements (2/8) produced cites of this form from 1888 through 1906, having to do with piano-playing, learning to type, and learning to write. My intuition (2/8) was that this was a separate figure ("eat, eat, eat"), though there might have been some cross-fertilization. John Baker (2/9) noted that "location, location, location" was invariant in form, but that the Carnegie Hall punch line has a common variant with a vocative in the middle: "practice, X, practice", where X is "son", "boy", or whatever. I agreed (2/9), arguing that X3 wasn't merely emphatic repetition (as in the Carnegie Hall joke or in "eat, eat, eat"):

i think that emphatic repetition generally can involve doubling *or* tripling. i can say "eat, eat, eat" or "eat, eat" with pretty much the same effect, but if i said "the two most important things in the michigan election are jobs and jobs", you'd figure out what i was getting at, but it would take you more work than if i'd used the figure with tripling, because you'd recognize that figure automatically.

And Dennis Preston (2/9) offered "defense, defense, defense", noting that it was like "location, location, location" in conveying 'the most important thing in the game is...'

Larry Horn (2/9) broadened the scope:

I was collecting these for a while, in connection with my more systematic exploration of the Lexical Clone construction (a.k.a. Doubles, Contrastive Focus Reduplication), as in "No, what I wanted was a {dog dog/salad salad}" or "We're not LIVing together living together". My hypothesis was that the emphatic triple (= 'and nothing else matters') emerged for this function (and I did have a bunch of others, but they didn't reveal anything earthshattering) because the double was pre-empted for the modificational use. Of course, whenever I presented anything on those triples, someone would quote the line from the Lewis Carroll epic poem, The Hunting of the Snark: "What I tell you three times is true". A quick web search indicates that you wouldn't be the first to refer to this pattern as "The Rule of Three".

Oh, lordy no, not the first. And very much not the first to use "Rule of Three" for investing threeness with significance, as my web search showed. Meanwhile, back on ADS-L we'd moved to thrice-cursedness in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (Gerald Cohen, 2/9), "third time lucky", Muslim divorce, and the ordination of Buddhist monks (Orin Hargraves, 2/9), and threeness in Karl Menninger's Number Words and Number Symbols (David Bergdahl, 2/9). [For a brief and, I think, entertaining inventory of some of the special meanings of 2 and 3, see my introduction to Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley (On the Occasion of His 33rd or 34th Birthday) (1971, reprinted 1992).] At this point I tried , somewhat sternly, to wrest the topic (on 2/9) back to the X3 formula, whose most salient characteristic (for me) was that it was conventionalized:

this discussion, interesting though it is, has veered significantly from my original query. (i know, e-discussions are like that.) i have no doubt that a special regard for the number 3 influenced the way the originator(s) of "location location location" framed this emphatic utterance, but the fact is that it did become a formula, which was then extended to other contexts than real estate and to utterances using expressions other than the word "location". the formula/figure/trope has a life of its own, as a convention of language use, and that life was what i was inquiring about.
it's much the same with syntactic constructions: aspects of a construction often "make sense" from a semantic or pragmatic point of view (more and more sense as we get back to the historical origins of the construction), but from the point of view of the speaker of the language they are simply the conventional ingredients of the construction. it makes sense that the english passive uses the auxiliary verb BE in combination with a past participle, but now those are just aspects of form that are paired with a particular meaning (a meaning that is distinct from the meaning of the predicate adjectival construction that served as the historical source for the passive). similarly, it makes sense that some languages use the subjunctive mood for imperative sentences, but speakers of such languages aren't creatively using the subjunctive to convey a suggestion; they're just taking the subjunctive off the shelf, so to speak, for this purpose.
(the processes -- or, perhaps, process -- of grammaticalization of syntactic form and conventionalization of figures are certainly interesting in their own right, and in fact i am very much interested in both, but they're not what i was asking about.)

Incredibly enough, people were actually working on my original query. The ADS-L Antedating Pack -- antedating expressions is a sort of sport for those who are lexicographically inclined -- was on the job. Jesse Sheidlower (2/8) noted that Barry Popik had posted earlier to ADS-L with a 1960 cite for location x3, which immediately trumped John Baker's (2/9) bid of a 1984 quote about the young Donald Trump. Baker did venture to speculate that X3 was relatively recent ("perhaps as little as 25 to 40 years ago") and that the real estate joke with location was the original model. And so it seems to be.

Popik's 1960 cite, conveniently reproduced by Sam Clements on 2/9:

4 May 1960, IOWA CITY PRESS CITIZEN, pg. 23, col. 2: LOCATION! LOCATION! Location! A famous realtor once said the three most important features of a home are its location.

The vague reference to "a famous" person who "once said" so-and-so is just classic. The quotation or formula is out there, and no one really knows who said it first, but it just had to be someone famous, from some time ago. (The 1984 cite had "hackneyed" in it.) Neither of these things is necessarily so. (And The Donald is right out of it.)

In any case, Popik (2/9) managed to get things back to 1956 in Van Nuys, California (for you non-Angelenos, that's in "the Valley", land of serious real estate development in the postwar years and, more recently, the native territory of the Valley Girl):

Van Nuys News - 6/10/1956: Two 3 bedroom homes. Reseda VAN NUYS LOCATION. Fireplace, patios, BBQ, fenced.....Trees. Best LOCATION. THE REALTY HOUSE 5818 VAN NUYS Bl. ST 6-7360 Open weekdays 'til 9 p.....With Chavin 4415 Ventura ST 9-0331 11-VAN NUYS District 11-VAN NUYS Distric The BEST.....2-BEDROOM CARPETED We repeat-LOCATION LOCATION, LOCATION. charming home with big...
Valley News - 11/22/1956: ...Excellent LOCATION. Asking VACANT CLOSE IN VAN NUYS. only down. 2-bedroom and den Large.....CHOICE LOCATION NEAR Kester elementary and VAN NUYS junior high schools. Just 9 months.....lo volume business. Write r. S. Box 237 VAN NUYS Nfews, VAN NUYS. CASH FOR YOUR EQUITY.....Ave. ST 6-1860. Eves. ST 0-0053 LOCATION LOCATION 'LOCATION The 3 things to look for...

(Popik also unearthed an apparent 1930 real estate cite, but that turned out to be 1980. See below.)

And that's it, folks. Back to the middle '50s, in a real estate context. And then the cites pile up fast and high, and they're all about location, until some more recent time, when the X3 formula took off for other purposes.

A couple of final notes. First, I have great respect for the lexicographic types who do these searches. It takes an enormous attention to context: what's important is not just the first time some word or sequence of words is attested, but how it's used. And what's important (as Jesse Sheidlower has recently been stressing on ADS-L) is not really the first appearance of an expression in this use (there are often repeated but isolated inventions), but when it "took off", when it spread though significant parts of the speech community. And the relevant texts can be very hard indeed to access; a lot of truly tedious library work is involved. And the miracle of text scanning and automatic searching is a mixed blessing; most of the scanned text that Popik looks at is really crappy, full of flagrant mis-scans, which is why a 1980 cite could appear with a 1930 date ("8" vs. "3").

When I have accidentally fallen into work of this sort, I've found it grindingly difficult and often baffling. I hope to report soon on my adventures in tracing the AAVE lexical item asto(r)perious/asteperious/astiperious 'haughty, uppity' (if any of you reading this actually uses this word, tell me now, please). Suffice it to say that I found myself engaged with the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the naming of World War Two bombers, race horses, romantic pseudo-historical fiction about early Ireland, rap music, detective mysteries, and much else. And I still don't understand any of it, really. I'm amazed that people can, sometimes, succeed at this sort of enterprise.

Second -- remember that there was a "first" a while back -- my apologies for having wandered from Geoff Pullum's interest in twos (the OICTIQ) to my own interest in threes (the ROT, and, specifically, the X3 formula). And try not to read too much into the "twos" vs. "threes" thing. (Insert, sigh, obligatory reference to cigars here.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 27, 2004 03:12 PM