Omne trium perfectum – everything that comes in threes is perfect

I am delighted to introduce the first guest post of this blog, written by Diana Rubanenko, a translator and editor who draws on a ‘rich tapestry of employment’ and a fascinating life – for more details see here: http://rubanenko.com/.

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Ever since taking a course on fairytales, some eons ago, the triadic principle has fascinated me. In fairytales, it’s found in the three witches, three princes, three wishes, Goldilocks and the three bears and so on.  In the psychoanalytical approach to fairytales, the threes symbolise the young child’s triadic relationship with her parents. Plato and Aristotle and their contemporaries believed that the number three was the first-born of the parent numbers of one and two (http://www.don-nix.com/?p=2639).

When I began translating law texts and encountered those splendid doublets (annoy or molest; bind and obligate) and triplets (hold, possess and enjoy; right, title and interest) so common in English legal texts, I found several theories for their prevalence in Bryan Garner’s ‘A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage’. Known as ‘amplification by synonym’, Garner says that one purpose was to ‘pair a French or Latinate term with an Anglo-Saxon approximation…’, such as ‘act and deed’ (Latin and Old English). However, philologist George Philip Krapp counter-argued that doubling ‘occurred abundantly in Old English, when no substantial foreign element existed in the language’. And there’s another explanation: ‘This multiplication of useless expression probably owed its origin to the want of knowledge of the true meaning and due application of each word’ (Charles Davidson, 1860). So authors with uncertain command of the language perhaps chose ‘to seek safety in verbosity…’.

More mundanely, in many non-legal texts that I translate to English – triplets occur to a surprising extent; often a noun is qualified by three adjectives when one would certainly do the trick.  People born and educated in Israel have told me that schoolteachers encouraged them to write as lengthy essays as possible to ‘make sure they got everything in’. Perhaps this approach lingers on and accounts for sentences like this – ‘it is a beautiful, attractive, stunning flat’.  So I use the Delete key energetically, and appreciate those précis lessons from years ago. Do schoolchildren still learn précis, I wonder…?

8 thoughts on “Omne trium perfectum – everything that comes in threes is perfect

  1. Dear Diana,

    I really enjoyed your post. I am also fascinated by doublets and triplets – and use the delete key a lot. My fascination is such that they were the focus of my MA thesis at the University of São Paulo. I studied binomials in common law contracts. Unfortunately, besides the abstract and examples, the dissertation is in Brazilian Portuguese. However, if you are interested in an exhaustive list of doublets in contracts, download the pdf and go to page 388, where you will find a list of 819 binomials (many of which also form triplets) in order of frequency. Other lists are also available according to grammatical category.
    http://www.teses.usp.br/teses/disponiveis/8/8147/tde-06112007-110242/pt-br.php

    warm regards,
    Luciana

    • Thank you so much for sharing this Luciana – it’s fascinating to me as it is close to my own research. Your list is excellent. Now I really want to try to read as much as I can of the rest (even though my Portuguese is really limited).

      Thanks again to Diana for her great post.

    • Dear Luciana,
      Thanks so much for your kindness in sharing this terrific resource! (and I’m glad you enjoyed the post)…
      Best regards,
      Diana

  2. Thanks Luciana for sharing your thesis. I downloaded it and will look at it carefully as soon as I have time (a scarce commodity for us translators). Doublets and triplets was always a source of fascination for me and a partial subject of my graduation term paper. I hope that applying my best portuñol will enable me to enjoy your paper’ contents with no trouble at all.

    Diana, your post was a joy to read.

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