Three score and ten


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Three score and ten'?

‘Three score and ten’ is the nominal span of a human life. In the days that this expression was coined that span was considered to be seventy years.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Three score and ten'?

Threescore used to be used for sixty, in the way that we still use a dozen for twelve, and (occasionally) score for twenty.

The use of threescore as a name for sixty has long since died out but is still remembered in this phrase. Threescore goes back to at least 1388, as in this from John Wyclif’s Bible, Leviticus 12, at that date:

“Thre scoor and sixe daies.”

There are numerous uses of ‘threescore’ in the Bible. Most of them refer to its simple meaning as the number sixty, for example:

“…threescore and ten bullocks, an hundred rams, and two hundred lambs: all these were for a burnt offering to the Lord.”

There is a use of it that refers to the span of our lives, in Psalms 90:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

As with many other Biblical phrases, this was picked up by Shakespeare. In Macbeth, 1605, we have:

Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.

It’s an odd fact that, although Shakespeare took numerous phrases and examples of imagery from the Bible, the word Bible doesn’t appear in any of his plays.

Trend of three score and ten in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.