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When Dr. Barclay was called, I was surprised. I had expected an elderly man, but he was only in the late thirties and good-looking. Knowing Elinor, I wondered. Except for Fred, who had no looks whatever, she had had a passion for handsome men.

Beside me, I heard Mother give a ladylike snort. “so that’s it!” she said. “She had as much need for a psychiatrist as I have for a third leg.”

A beginning part of "The Lipstick" by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The short story was written in 1942, so the expression 'a third leg' might be used in a different context from these days' vulgar meaning.

The dialogue is happening in the coronor's office after Elinor took her own life.

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In this case, third leg is as responded below but it as other non-vulgar meanings. The oldest use found in the riddle: "What animal is it that starts into life on four legs, passes to the use of two, and ends on three?" Oedipus, on his travels,.. solved the riddle and slew the monster, and was made king of the country by the grateful people. He said that the animal alluded to is man, who starts into life crawling on hands and knees (four feet), passes to the upright posture or use of his two feet proper, and who, in old age, is compelled to resort to a staff (his third leg). –  Third News Jun 15 at 7:12
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Inasmuch as the suspicion "Mother" here expresses is that Elinor's visits to this psychiatrist have been motivated rather by sexual attraction than by medical need, I fear that any reader who regards anything related to sexuality as distressingly vulgar is just S.O.L. here, even though the term "third leg" here means excrescence or impediment rather than penis; and the latter, "vulgar" meaning may well even be an intentional subtext. –  Brian Donovan Jun 15 at 13:25

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The "third leg" referred to in this case is an unnecessary object. We can walk quite well on two legs; we don't need a third (in fact, it might trip us up.) We don't need it at all.*

It's similar to another saying: "I need that like I need another hole in my head."

Elinor had had a passion for handsome men. The psychiatrist was handsome. "Mother" snorts at the idea that Elinor was seeing the psychiatrist because she needed psychiatric help (she obviously thinks she knows better.)

She had as much need for a psychiatrist as I have for a third leg.

*save for the person who needs a cane to walk, the proverbial 'third leg' in the 'evening' of a person's life.

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Though the meaning, in your context, is 'a useless thing' – you should also be aware that a "third leg" is a slang term for the male sexual organ.

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He alluded to that with: "so the expression 'a third leg' might be used in a different context from these days' vulgar meaning" –  Charles Goodwin Jun 15 at 19:37
    
Many readers of this site are unfamiliar with such innuendo. Our answers are 'in the business' of clarifying EL&U — so I was direct about it. –  New Alexandria Jun 16 at 3:04

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