American English is filled with interesting sayings and phrases. The Newton Falls Public Library staff recently had patron wondering where another one came from. “With the passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson, I got to wondering where the expression, death comes in threes, originated? Another staff member has family who says a birth, a wedding and a death all come together. This got us to wondering if the expressions are linked.
Our staff searched the phrase, slang, and idioms books in the library’s collection and was unsuccessful in locating either expression, even though there were numerous listings for the words but not those particular phrases. Even McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs by Richard A. Speares, which has many pages containing death, come, and threes, does not have either of the sought after phrases.
Trying to consider other ways of looking at this; what if it is not a phrase but rather a superstition? Pioneer Superstitions by Ferne Shelton has a sampling of oral tales and beliefs. Ohio State Buckeye fans will be happy to know that “If a buckeye is carried in a chest pocket, all enemies become kind to you. If carried in a lower pocket or purse, expect prosperity [p.12].” Superstitions by Peter Lorie refers to death, birth, and marriage as milestones of life and offers interesting superstitions related to each, beautifully illustrated by paintings and photographs. Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: a compendium of American Folklore from the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett is where we were partially successful. In volume 2 there is a section titled, Numbers, Counting in the Lore of Death. Most of the notions in this section included references to one death or funeral followed by two more. In the same volume, Love, Courtship, Marriage, etc. as Death Tokens, we found the belief that marriages, births and deaths will come linked together in families.
We were unable to find anything definitive either in print or online as to the origins of these beliefs, each of which deals with three events. One reason which might be considered is the prevalence of human beliefs focused on the number three. In the May 28, 2001 issue of Telephony [telephonyonline.com/mag/telecom_rule_threes/index.html], Jason Meyers writes in his article Rule of Threes [p.84], “Dividing things into threes is universally acceptable. There's Aristotle's principle of the three unities of time, place and action. There's Freud's id, ego and superego. There's the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three strikes and you're out. Third time's a charm. Bad things happen in threes, and for some reason things are also supposed to be funnier in threes.”