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shameless pleading





Three times three and a tiger


Dear Word Detective: I’m reading Margaret Leech’s “Reveille in Washington” and came across this phrase: “. . . every blue coat in the audience sprang to his feet, with three times three and a tiger.”  I’m guessing the “three times three and a tiger” means quickly and with enthusiasm, but I’ve never heard the phrase before.  Can you explain it and where it came from? — Barney Johnson.

I think so. Great question, by the way. I came across all sorts of interesting things in researching the answer, some of which I already knew but didn’t realize were connected to this question.

So, to begin with the source of your question, Margaret Leech’s “Reveille in Washington” was actually published in 1941, but was long out of print until it was recently resurrected and republished by the New York Review of Books. Leech was a historian, biographer and novelist, and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for History (which she actually won twice, first for “Reveille in Washington” and then for “In the Days of McKinley” in 1960). “Reveille in Washington” is a history of the events and atmosphere in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War period of 1860-65. According to the Washington Post, the book “remains the best single popular account of Washington during the great convulsion of the Civil War.”

The phrase “three times three” first appeared in print in the late 18th century (“My health has been drank in a bumper, with three times three, by every Club of Tradesmen in the City,” 1789), but was almost certainly common in speech before that date. “Three times three” equals nine, of course, but as a colloquial term it means “a cheer,” particularly a cheer of celebration, whether of a victory in a contest (football game, war, etc.) or in tribute to an honored guest, as in the 1789 quotation above.

Having pieced that explanation together from a variety of sources, I stared at it blankly for a few seconds before the light bulb in my noggin lit. “Three times three” is shorthand for the familiar “three cheers” call-and-response ritual “Hip-Hip … Hooray! Hip-Hip … Hooray! Hip-Hip … Hooray!” Three words, shouted three times — “three times three.” The term seems to have been a British invention, but the “tiger” part comes from the US, where since about 1845 it has meant the finishing howl or bestial roar of a crowd after a group cheer such as a “three times three” (“When the ceremony ends, the scamp of the party … proposes three cheers and a tiger for Mr. Gordon,” 1869). Interestingly, the US “tiger” addition was not, apparently. a big hit back in Britain (“‘Three cheers’ in properly hearty unison, without the hysterical American supplement of ‘tigers’,” Daily Telegraph, 1880).

5 comments to Three times three and a tiger

  • Al robertson

    Thankyou for the info on the history of this old phrase.
    I also enjoyed the variety of side-sites available -suggested-for viewing.

  • What a delight – and a grateful convenience! – for this cataloger to discover your excellent answer to my query today, raised while transcribing the following entry from a manuscript journal kept by young schoolteacher Joseph W. Aldrich on Mackinac Island, Michigan . . .

    Tuesday, March 15, 1864 – “. . . This [P?].M- the Volunteers of this place were out on a Bush- the scholars all caught the war fever – As the sleigh went by the school house, with the Soldiers & Drums (Gail Warner was drumming) I told the scholars to yell, & they gave 3 times 3 & a tiger for the B’hoys, . .

  • Bryan

    I think that you are mostly right, but I have seen references that implie that the term was used by British navel personel and army troops in the 17th century but these references need verifieing as they where not in academic sources. The 3 times 3 part which you point out adds up to 9 makes me think of the old germanic religions that considered 9 a lucky or sacred number.

  • Thanks! I’m producing Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” in which the full phrase appears, although it’s pretty clear what it means as the crowd performs the cheer (although there is no description of a tiger roar at the end).

  • Mark Seidenberg

    It was in 1959, that I first saw the phrase “3 times 3 and an
    American Tiger” in the contact of annexation of territory in the Arctic.

    it was on 13 September 1871 that Charles F. Hall lead a landing party to take formal possession of Greenland for the United States Government at Thank-God Harbor, Greenland with the Wilkes Flag in the name of G-D, POTUS, and the SecNav. The landing party came from the USS POLARIS.

    Then on 2-3 June 1881 at Cape Melville, George Wallace Melville, USN lead a landing party ashore to take formal possession of the Jeannette Islands, viz., Henrietta, Herald, and Jeannette in the Arctic Ocean for the United States Government in the name of G-D, POTUS, and the SecNav.

    Then on 29 July 1881 at Cape Emma, George Washington De Long. USN lead a landing party that annexed Bennett Island in the Arctic Ocean in the name of G-D, POTUS, and the SecNav.

    Then on 12 August 1881 at the mouth of the Clark River (Cape Corwin) at New Columbia Land (Wrangell Island since 29 July 19010 a landing party to formal possession in the name of the United States Government that was lead by 3rd Lt. William Edward Reynolds, USRM in the name of G-D, POTUS, and the Secretary of the Treasury.

    On all four annexations the “3 times 3 cheer and an American Tiger” was used as part of the description of the events.

    However, when Mr. Simpson on 3 September 1837 took formal possession of Point Barrow (Alaska since 12 December 1912), the party to the annexation in the name of King George IV gave a “3 times 3 cheer”.

    Therefore, it must be a part of both the British and United States form of formal possession ceremony.

    It was on 17 May 1884 that the Alaska Board of the United States Department of the Treasury added six islands not in the Department of Alaska to the District of Alaska under the terms of Section 1 of the Harrison Alaska Organic Act, viz.,
    Bennett, Forrester, Henrietta, Jeannette, and Wrangell.

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