With David Bowie and Alan Rickman dying within a few days on each other (RIP), I've heard some people say, "Death always comes in threes, I wonder who's next."

What is the origin of this phrase? How did this confirmation bias come about?

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

I'm just interested to know how did this phrase came into use.

  • 4
    Everything comes in threes.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 14, 2016 at 19:32
  • 3
    There may well be an allusion to the three on a match superstition, even though death only lies in wait for the third soldier who lights his cigarette from a single match (by which time an enemy sniper has spotted that light, aimed his rifle, and is ready to fire). Jan 14, 2016 at 19:49
  • 5
    Like I said, everything comes in threes -- good things, misfortunes, fates, "everything", bad things, Alberta's provincial premiers, witches, all things in Heaven and on earth, all things, troubles, great waves, disasters, even sets of twins.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 14, 2016 at 20:29
  • the original phrase is BAD LUCK comes in threes.
    – Fattie
    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:13

3 Answers 3


The fact that the number "three" is a source of superstition is based on a number of different reasons and is generally referred to as "Triaphilia". I think that "death comes in three" is just a superstition based on the same concepts:

  • The tendency to want to hold on to the three connection is strong in many areas of life.

    • One reason might be a sort of number mysticism. Three is the first odd prime number, the triangle is a stable shape, in our base 10 system, the fraction 1/3 is .3333333…, et cetera.

    • A second more compelling reason might be psychological, perhaps deriving from the structure and limited complexity of our brains.

    • The appeal of the trinity in Christianity and other religions, the philosophical triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and even the setup of many jokes seem to stem in part from a natural resonance with the number three. (A priest, a minister and a rabbi go into a bar and ..., or a physicist, an engineer and a mathematician are asked how to … .)


There are a few early instances of the expression in the 30's but usage appears to be more frequent from the mid 60's, Ngram. It might be just a variant of the more common "bad things come in threes", Ngram.

  • If you look at this Ngram books.google.com/ngrams/… there was a significant rise of the phrase usage in 1940s.
    – lesslazy
    Jan 14, 2016 at 19:45
  • @lesslazy - there are actually just a couple of instances which appear to be from that period. The following instances are more frequent from the 60's
    – user66974
    Jan 14, 2016 at 19:49
  • 1
    The closely related expression "bad luck comes in threes" tracks to the same pattern in Ngram as "death comes in threes" and though not as prevalent, it did exist in the 1930s. I'm wondering how that originated back during that time period which predates WWII and the 3-on-a-match scenario. Jan 14, 2016 at 20:06
  • My Ngram above shows "come in threes" going back to about 1860 and "comes in threes" back to about 1900 (though unfortunately there are few references linked until after 1910 or so, but plenty after that point). There is even a Basque-English dictionary from 1989 translating the expression "misfortune comes in threes".
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 14, 2016 at 21:47
  • @HotLicks - the concept and its usage referring to superstitions is certainly very old. It may have also a positive connotation as in "good things come in threes". I referred to the generic negative phrase "bad things come in threes" as it precedes in usage "death comes in threes" which may derive from it.
    – user66974
    Jan 14, 2016 at 21:52

We tend to like threes.

Take, for example, hendiatris. Wikipedia has some wonderful examples of this, e.g.:

  • Veni, vidi, vici
  • Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity)
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
  • Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
  • Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
  • Location, location, location

Threes seem somehow natural and right in rhetoric.

Like Josh61 I would suggest the idea that death comes in threes is a mere outgrowth of this psychological liking for threes.

  • Beginning, middle, end. Father, mother, child. Obligatory link to the Multiplication Rock episode "Three is a Magic Number", Jan 14, 2016 at 22:16
  • 1
    Ah, but two's company, three's a crowd.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 14, 2016 at 22:51
  • 1
    Three at last! Three at last! Thank God Almighty, we are three at last!
    – Caleb707
    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:52

There is some math behind the idea that celebrities die in threes - although it turns out the number is actually 2.7183, or e.

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