Posted by ESC on November 14, 2001
In Reply to: Three on a match posted by Rankin on November 14, 2001
: what is the origin and significance of this phrase
From the archives under "match."
Posted by ESC on January 30, 2000
An inquiry on this was posted previously. Here I have the response that was posted then and some new information.
THREE ON A MATCH -- : Third on a match. Meaning: bad luck. Origin: possibly WWI. A sniper would see a match, take aim at the second soldier lighting up, and pick off the third. People are superstitious about the number three anyway: "All good things come in threes. People still believe that good or bad luck may follow someone three times in a row. The word bad may substitute for good. Things (death, luck, trouble, misfortune, murders, disasters) come in threes is a variant of the proverb. First attested in the United States in 1927..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman.
Additional information from "How Did It Begin: A fascinating study of the superstitions, customs, and strange habits that influence our daily lives" by R. Brash (Pocket Book, New York, 1969):
LIGHTING THREE CIGARETTES WITH ONE MATCH - The Holy Trinity, commercial interests and self-protection in time of war, are cited as the direct cause of aversion to lighting three cigarettes with one match.
Three is the symbol of the trinity. To make a mundane use of it was to defile its sanctity and to transgress the holy law. Man would invite disaster and put himself into the power of the 'evil one.' Thus, a match, trebly used, would light the fires of Hell for one's own soul.
Another, less fearful tradition claims that the superstition first arose among British troops during the Crimean War. They learned from Russian captives of the danger of using any light for a threefold purpose. They were told that it was the sacred rule of the Orthodox Church that the three candles on the altar were not to be lit from a single taper, except when the High Priest used it. However, a more likely explanation of the origin of the custom is that British soldiers, entrenched against Dutch foes in the Boer War, learned by bitter experience of the danger of lighting three cigarettes from one match. When the men thriftily used one match to serve three of them, they gave the Boer sniper time to spot the light, take aim and fire, killing 'the third man.'
Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match king, certainly did not create the superstition, as it has been alleged, but he made the widest possible use of it to promote sales. People, innately superstitious, did not mind wasting a match. After all, there might just be something in it! Certainly there were millions of pounds of profit for Mr. Kreuger who thus, by fostering for his own purpose a realistic wartime precaution, was able to increase his sales manifold."