Ménage à Trois – Frank McNally on the rule of three, hendiatris, and a plan to change the Olympic motto
An Irishman’s Diary
The International Olympic Council is thinking of changing its “Faster, Higher, Stronger” motto to make room for a fourth word, “Together”. Photograph: Getty Images
In the latest example of the seemingly irresistible human urge not to leave well enough alone, the International Olympic Council is thinking of changing its motto – the three-word aspiration to excellence that has summarised the Olympic Games since 1924.
If IOC president Thomas Bach has his way, the terms “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”) will soon have to shuffle over on the winners’ podium to make room for a fourth word: communis (“Together”). His proposal was well received at a recent meeting of the council and is now being put to general membership.
The new Latin version would at least retain its three-beat rhythm which, as traditional musicians among you will know, is that of a jig. Being a non-musician, I was indebted some years ago to a tip from a Scottish fiddler on how to tell a jig from a reel, instantly. If you can say the word “typical” to the beat, over and over, it’s a jig, he said. If “moderator” fits better – the fiddler was a Presbyterian, obviously – it’s a reel.
Well, on the plus side, you will still be able to tap your feet to the rhythm of “Citius, Altius, Fortius, Communis”, something Herr Bach, with his musical name, may appreciate.
On the other hand, it doesn’t work in most living languages. As in English, the French version of the current motto is composed of two-syllable terms (“plus vite, plus haut, plus fort”). So is the German: “schneller, höher, stärker”. But in all three, the proposed addition has an extra syllable – “together”, “ensemble”, “gemeinsam” – changing the rhythm.
This seems somehow symbolic. The new, touchier-feelier version may be in keeping with the spirit of our inclusive age. But it also sounds like the start of a retreat from the emphasis on individual competition that is the whole essence of the Olympics. I would worry that the new slogan will bring closer the day when the finalists in the 100 metres join hands half-way up the track and jog across the finish line together, before all receiving gold medals.
Whereas its compatibility with traditional fiddle music was probably an accident, the current Olympic motto surely owes much of its success to being a classic example of hendiatris – a figure of speech (from the Greek “one through three”) in which three terms combine rhetorically to express a single idea.
Some of the most famous slogans and quotations in history have used this technique, including Julius Caesar’s boast after the Battle of Zela, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”), and the start of Mark Antony’s eulogy for the same Caesar, as imagined by Shakespeare: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen . . .”
Other examples include both the US constitution’s guarantee of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the alternative summary of traditional American priorities: “God, guns, and country”. The revolutionary French had “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. The modern French – who still have that – also have “métro, boulot, dodo”, representing the drudgery of actual everyday life.
Thanks to its hendiatric properties, “game, set, and match” has a popularity way beyond tennis, while “reduce, reuse, recycle” is the ecological equivalent of the Olympic slogan. And then there is the hendiatris that, while somewhat dated now, was long considered a recipe for (male) happiness, if not for athletic success. I refer of course to “wine, women, and song”.
Offences against hendiatris aside, the extended Olympic motto would also break the related but separate “rule of three”. This is the mysterious and yet long-established idea that a list of three things, events, or characters is always more satisfying that one of two, four, or any other number. There is a Latin term for that too – omnium trium perfectum (“every set of three is perfect”). And it must explain part of the success of the aforementioned quotations, as well as a thousand other literary and musical phenomena.
Flann O’Brien wrote a whole novel (At Swim-Two-Birds) in homage to the concept, with three different beginnings, middles, and endings. He then tied it up neatly, if grimly, with a closing paragraph about the suicide-in-triplicate of an unnamed Teuton, viz: “Well known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three…”
Come to think of it, that’s hardly an argument to persuade Thomas Bach against adding a fourth word to the Olympic slogan. Suffice instead to say that even some of the most popular jokes have traditionally considered the rule of three sacred.
Take the infamous Paddy-the-Irishman, Paddy-the-Englishman, and Paddy-the-Scotsman, for example. Their medal positions might change from event to event, and country to country. But nobody on these islands – not even the most fervid, four-nation unionist – has ever suggested giving Paddy-the-Welshman a place on the podium too.