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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).

1 comment to Three times three and a tiger

  • 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.

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