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We all know about the proverb "Third time's a charm", or " Third time lucky". We use it everyday in our day to day lives. I just realized that my own language has a similar proverb: "দানে দানে তিন দান" . It doesn't say that third time's a charm or lucky, but it can be inferred from the proverb that there is something special about third time. Russian languange also has a similar thing, which basically means, "God loves trinity". So I'm just wondering, what's so special about three?

  • Pretty sure you'd have to go into theorizing about Proto-Indo-European culture's presumable fight/pray/work breakdown and reconstructions of their religion if you're going to reach as far afield as India and Russia. Just within English borders, the Welsh Triads show a focus on three being 'comprehensive' likely going back into prehistory. – lly Jul 20 '18 at 4:19
  • Obviously, at a mundane level, your third attempt on a simple task is frequently going to be as good a correction of your initial mistakes as you can manage without a great deal more effort. – lly Jul 20 '18 at 4:23
  • Welcome to ELU. Obviously, this is not about the English language and its usage. There's Hinduism SE; there are other related sites, maybe even numerology. This question better be asked in one of those sites. Good Luck. – Kris Jul 20 '18 at 5:59
  • "Three is an important number for many cultures (groups of people living together)." (Wikipedia); More on Britannica: britannica.com/topic/number-symbolism#ref849758 – Kris Jul 20 '18 at 6:05
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Note: This answer focuses on the question that the poster asks in the title line of the question: "What's the origin of the proverb 'Third time's a charm'?" It does not attempt to identify the source—in language or elsewhere—of the notion that the number three is "so special."


Martin Manser, The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (2002) has this entry for the expression:

the third time is the charm According to popular superstition, success will come at the third attempt: After two aborted missions, N.A.S.A. is hoping that the third time is the charm. The proverb was first recorded in 1721 (James Kelly, Scottish Proverbs), but the sentiment it expresses is of earlier origin.

Variants of this proverb: third time lucky; the third time pays for all.

Proverbs expressing similar meaning: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again; there's luck in odd numbers.

Interestingly, the expression "third is a charm" shows up in John Kelly, The Scottish Proverbs Collected, Explain'd and Made Intelligible to the English (1721) twice—first as a gloss on a related proverb:

  1. All things thrive at thrice.

An Encouragement to those who have miscarried in their Attempts once and again, to try the third time. They will say the third's a Charm, or there are three things of all things.

and later as its own entry:

  1. The third is a Charm.

Spoken to encourage those who have attempted a thing once and again to try a third time. They will say also,

  1. There is three things of all things.

According to G.L. Apperson, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs (1929), "the third time pays for all" dates to no later than 1575:

Third time pays for all, The. 1575: Higgins, Mirr[or] for Magis[trates], P1. I.: "Q. Elstride," st. 23, Which I haue prou'd, therefore the sequel vewe,The third pays home, this prouerbe is so true.

So "third time pays for all" may actually be older (in English) than "third time is the charm." In any event, there are numerous instances going back to the Bible in which something is attempted twice unsuccessfully but then on the third try yields success; and it would hardly be a stretch for people to consider the third attempt itself to be blessed with a kind of good luck charm.

As Kelly's Scottish proverbs indicate, a lot of folk faith resides in the number three, so it makes sense that proverbs extolling the virtue of trying a third time exist in multiple forms in English.

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    The Q is about "What's special about the number three?" though. – Kris Jul 20 '18 at 6:00
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    @Kris: Perhaps I should edit my answer to note that I am mainly addressing the question asked in the title field ("What's the origin of the proverb 'Third time's a charm'?"). That question—unlike the question "Why three?"—invites an answer that can be documented and is not primarily opinion-based. – Sven Yargs Jul 20 '18 at 6:07
  • I did note the difference between the title and summarizing question at the end of the post. And that this does partly answer the question. – Kris Jul 20 '18 at 6:11
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    @Kris: I have added a warning to the beginning of my answer regarding the focus (and incompleteness) of the answer. – Sven Yargs Jul 20 '18 at 6:14
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    @RaceYouAnytime: Please feel free to submit this instance to OED if you like. I am surprised that its earliest recorded instance of the expression is from 1830. – Sven Yargs Jul 20 '18 at 16:03

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