three on a match

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three on a match

Post by Shannon » Wed Apr 13, 2005 2:50 pm

my ex-husband used to say "three on a match" quite often and he once told me what it meant. I'm trying to find out for sure what this means, in what context it is used and where it originated. Can anyone help? I don't believe this is just a Tennessee saying.
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three on a match

Post by Nahani » Wed Apr 13, 2005 3:02 pm

My grandfather, who was a WW1 veteran, told me that "three on a match is unlucky." According to him, it had to do with soldiers in trenches on the front lines. During lulls in the battles, soldiers would often smoke in their foxholes. Matches being hard to come by, several would try to light up on one match. But the longer the match burned, the easier it was for the opposing forces to sight in on the light it gave off and start shooting again. Word was passed down the ranks that no more than two should light from the same match in order to keep from making your position a target.
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three on a match

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Apr 13, 2005 4:00 pm

You are a sniper in a World War One trench. You see the first man take a light from the match. You aim when the second man takes his, and fire at the third. The third bloke tends to be a bit unlucky in those circumstances.
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three on a match

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Apr 13, 2005 4:20 pm

There is one aspect of this that I find puzzling. If a sniper could target you by the match you used for lighting your cigarette, he must surely also have been able to track your glowing cigarette end?

This seems to me to be yet another demonstration -- if any were needed -- that smoking kills.
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three on a match

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Apr 13, 2005 8:13 pm

Shannon, THREE ON A MATCH is taken to mean any practice which reputedly brings ill luck, but most of the time the specific practice of lighting three cigarettes with one match. And the most often-mentioned, supposed origin of the phrase is the soldier/sniper explanation offered above by Shelly and Bob. But, as Erik said, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because the cigarette itself would also emit a glow, but perhaps not as bright as a flame – let’s do an experiment with live ammunition! (<:)

It’s likely, however, that the bad luck associated with the number ‘three’ here, was more influenced by the age-old superstitions associated with that number than with any reality about three being a magic number for snipers tracking soldiers lighting cigarettes.
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From the book 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) – by way of The Phrase Finder (and trusting that they did not screw up the quote) we have:

LIGHTING THREE CIGARETTES WITH ONE MATCH - The Holy Trinity, commercial interests and self-protection in time of war, are cited as the [[three]] direct cause[] of aversion to lighting three cigarettes with one match.

[[1]] 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.

[[2]] 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.'

[[3]] 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."
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Having never heard the expression before, I was surprised that Google produced ~ 69,000 hits. Upon examination of the results, I found that ~ 68,500 of these THREE ON A MATCH hits derived from the following three sources:

1) A 1932 movie of this name about the lives of 3 women during the depression. A movie synopsis review said the following: “After 10 years apart, three childhood schoolmates unexpectedly bump into each other and immediately resume their friendship in spite of their very different positions in society. While reminiscing, they light three cigarettes from the same match, defying a popular 1930s superstition that this will result in death for one of them.”

2) A popular TV game show of this name hosted by Bill Cullen that ran from 1971 through 1974.

3) A song of this name recorded by The Cherry Poppin Daddies in 1996: “Three on a match again / Three on a match again / Looks like I lost a friend / I'll never go three on a match again /Three on a match again”
<1932 “THREE ON A MATCH” (song title) – words by Raymond B. Egan, music by Ted Fiorito, New York, De Sylva, Brown & Henderson, Inc.”>

<1949 “A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, which is inviolable for the same reason that makes "THREE ON A MATCH" taboo: both represent the Trinity.”—‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions” by E. and M. A. Radford>

<1974 “I offered each of my friends a cigarette, which they accepted, and then took one myself. I first lit their cigarettes, and afterward, using the same match, touched the flame to my own. Before taking a drag, however, I instinctively muttered, ‘This means bad luck, but I’ll do it anyway... many of my North American compatriots rely wholeheartedly on the THREE-ON-A-MATCH rule and would consider my action a foolish temptation of fate.”—‘The Journal of American Folklore,’ April, Vol. 87, No. 344, page 163>

<1976 “No THREE ON A MATCH – But StopLite [[a self-extinguishing match product]] may reduce to irrelevance the old superstition about THREE ON A MATCH, which got started during the Boer War (a prolonged flame gave the enemy time to take aim). Lighting three cigarettes from the same StopLite would be not just unlucky but almost impossible.”—‘Time,’ 17 May>
(Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Listening to America by Flexner)
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three on a match

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Wed Apr 13, 2005 11:06 pm

Even in peacetime, you could get your fingers burned.
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three on a match

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Apr 14, 2005 8:22 am

My father, who was a soldier in WWII, always used to say that the superstition was invented to sell more matches, and I find that theory very believable. If you think of it, most men in the trenches would have been pipe-smokers, and it takes about three matches to get one of those things going properly, so the sniper and the see, aim and fire would have had a very easy time indeed.
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three on a match

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sun Apr 17, 2005 9:57 am

It would appear that trenches are possibly not the best places to have pipes.
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three on a match

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Apr 17, 2005 10:22 am

That leaves things rather up in the air.
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three on a match

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Apr 17, 2005 11:21 am

"I was surprised that Google produced ~ 69,000 hits. Upon examination of the results, I found that ~ 68,500 of these THREE ON A MATCH hits derived from the following three sources:"
.. proof of a point that I have often made that quoting the number of hits on Google as some kind of proof or justification is a shallow illogical methodology .. Dale please take note ..

WoZ of Aus 17/04/05
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three on a match

Post by Shelley » Thu May 05, 2005 7:03 pm

This topic is the reason I decided, after 5 or 6 years of "just looking", to join up.
Yes, the cigarette itself does emit a glow, and soldiers avoided detection while smoking a cigarette by "cupping" the burning end to hide the glow. That's why you see guys in war movies holding the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger with the lit end toward the palm, and with the rest of their fingers curved around the burning end.
So, "three on a match" could still make sense in a battlefield context, no?
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three on a match

Post by haro » Thu May 05, 2005 8:26 pm

I just wonder why those guys didn't duck down in the trench for lighting their cigarettes. There were no infrared night-vision devices in WWI.
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three on a match

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri May 06, 2005 4:59 am

Shelley, That is interesting and I do recall seeing that way of holding cigarettes both in the movies and years ago by assorted folks including punks on New York City street corners. Perhaps some of these were people who actually were in combat or perhaps they were copying others who were, or what they saw in the movies. As Hans Joerg suggested, in combat, it would have made sense to have just ducked down below ground level for the lighting (and probably the smoking as well). But very often we see people performing somewhat strange and unnecessary rituals sometimes in the mistaken belief that it serves some useful purpose or more probably by reflex. A few that come to mind immediately are 1) the one where someone leans over and cups their hand to whisper a secret, when there is no way in hell that anyone other the intended listener could possibly hear them. 2) the rolling of peanuts in the hand before raising the hand to the mouth – there was always at least one guy around pulling that routine. I can see were the purported reason might be that the ‘centrifugal’ force would send the nuts out toward the index finger and thumb, but come on, who are we kidding?

Seems to me there ought to be a word for this type of ritualistic performance of the unnecessary, and if not, one should be invented. Barbara Wallraff actually has an Atlantic Monthly column called ‘Word Fugitives’ in which people send in requests for a word describing a particular action and readers come up with creative responses. Last month’s question was what is “a term that describes the manner in which two people who dislike each other manage to avoid acknowledgement when their paths cross.” Some responses that appeared in the May issue were ‘select-a-vision,’ ‘the silent greetment,’ ‘circumnavihate,’ “n’approachment,” ‘near-dis,’ ‘sneer-miss,’ ‘proxenmity,’ ‘close proxenmity,’ ‘snubterfuge,’ ‘snubbing their foes,’ 'can’t-standoffish,’ and to the other, each person is a ‘persona non greeter’ — I love it!

This month’s question is: “What is the word to describe the moment right before you are about to do something terribly stupid, when everything runs in slow motion as you watch hopelessly? The actions I mean are locking your keys in the car, knocking over a beverage at dinner, or inserting a stack of bills into the mailbox—along with the checks you had intended to take to the bank for deposit.” [off topic, who’s off topic? What topic you talkin’ about?]
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three on a match

Post by Bobinwales » Fri May 06, 2005 7:38 am

Blundervision.
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three on a match

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri May 06, 2005 8:08 am

Bob, That’s really very good – I like it and think it has the sound of a winner. You should submit it to the Atlantic Monthly and possibly get your name up in lights. You, or anyone else that is interested in submitting your creations, may do so at http://www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by May 31.

To further whet appetites here is the blurb from the submissions page:

Word Fugitives | Submissions Page

A word fugitive is a wanted word or expression that someone has been unable to call to mind. Quite probably no exactly apt term exists—but maybe one should. Those familiar with ‘The Meaning of Liff’ (1983), by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, or ‘Sniglets’ (1984), by Rich Hall and Friends, may find it helpful to think of word fugitives as empty mental spaces waiting to be filled by neologisms like the ones that appeared in those books. Readers familiar with ‘Atlantic Unbound’ may already be acquainted with the word-fugitives idea, which made its debut online. Now readers are invited to submit for this page both word fugitives they seek and neologisms they coin to meet the needs of their word-wanting fellows.

Readers whose queries are published and those whose coinages are singled out for top honors will each receive, with our thanks, a selection of recent autographed books by ‘Atlantic’ authors.
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