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Roy Moore's 12/13/2017 non-concession speech  started out this way:

We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization, and our religion.

And he goes on in the same vein, with another rhetorical tricolon:

This particular race was watched not only by the people of this state, but by the entire nation, and many around the world.
Why? Because I believe the heart and soul of our country is at stake.

And soon he reaches this doubled triple threat:

Abortion, sodomy, and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The history of purely nominal tricolons (NOUN, NOUN, NOUN) in politics is mixed — Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité has been a success for the French, but Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion was a disaster for James G. Blaine in the 1884 U.S. presidential election, as Wikipedia explains:

In the final week of the campaign, the Blaine campaign suffered a catastrophe. At a Republican meeting attended by Blaine, a group of New York preachers castigated the Mugwumps. Their spokesman, Reverend Dr. Samuel Burchard, made this fatal statement: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion." Blaine did not notice Burchard's anti-Catholic slur, nor did the assembled newspaper reporters, but a Democratic operative did, and Cleveland's campaign managers made sure that it was widely publicized. The statement energized the Irish and Catholic vote in New York City heavily against Blaine, costing him New York state and the election by the narrowest of margins.

Acid, Abortion, and Amnesty worked out well enough for the Republicans and Richard Nixon against George McGovern in 1972. But Abortion, Sodomy, and Materialism is not looking like a winner for Roy Moore.

Among the often-quoted nominal tricolons with little or no historical result is this one from Robert Maynard Hutchins:

Football, fraternities, and fun have no place in the university. They were introduced only to entertain those who shouldn’t be in the university.



  1. Keith said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:54 am

    But Rum, Sodomy and the Lash worked quite well for The Pogues.

    [(myl) Indeed — and apparently it worked well enough for the original author, Winston Churchill. According to a Q&A in The Guardian:

    When and why did Winston Churchill say: 'The traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash'?

    CHURCHILL'S description of the Royal Navy is included in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as having appeared in the book, Former Navy Person, by Sir Peter Gretton. The Oxford Dictionary suggests that Churchill's phrase should be compared with naval phrases dating from the 19th century – 'Rum, bum and bacca' and 'Ashore, it's wine, women and song, aboard it's rum, bum and concertina'.

    It looks as though here, as elsewhere, Churchill took an earlier quotation and improved upon it. In The Irrepressible Churchill, compiled by Kay Halle (Robson Books, 1985), Churchill is said to have used the phrase in 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. According to 'an ear-witness', he was having trouble with some of his admirals at a strategy meeting. One of them accused him of having impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy, provoking the reply: 'And what are they? They are rum, sodomy and the lash'.


  2. Terry Hunt said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 6:31 am

    The jazz singer George Melly used Rum, Bum and Concertina as the title of a 1977 volume of autobiography. (He quoted the full sentence, as given by Prof Liberman above, as an epigraph attributed to 'Old Naval Saying'.)

  3. chips mackinolty said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:16 am

    Not sure if this is a dicolon or a quadricolon, but Anne Summers' 1975 book n the colonisation of Australian women "Damned whores and God's police" must be up there somewhere. It sold over 100,000 copies across three editions.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:42 am

    As I recall, Professor Miller at the University of Florida argued that Indo-European societies developed a tripartite structure such as three branches of government, the trinity, trilogies, 3-act plays, three strikes, etc., etc. etc. He argued that this gave rise to our gender system. The tricolon would feel comfortable in this mind set.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    There was FDR's marvelous "Martin, Barton, and Fish."

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    Is there a terminological distinction between tricolons that alliterate and those that don't?

    [(myl) "Alliterative tricolons"? I don't know of any pseudo-Greek or pseudo-Latin rhetorical compound without internal spaces, but perhaps one exists.]

  7. Yuval said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:16 am

    All the weirder that Churchill opted for a quadcolon in "blood, toil, sweat and tears", and indeed many have since forsaken the "toil" part.

  8. Dan Romer said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:30 am

    What about that famous threesome from the 60's that didn't require alliteration: sex, drugs, and rock'n roll?

  9. matt regan said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    "No amount of mermaid magic, managerial promotion, or some other third thing" SpongeBob Squarepants

  10. bks said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:56 am

    Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres …

  11. David L said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

    The more sodomy, presumably, the less the need for abortion.

  12. ~flow said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    'dreimal ist Bremer Recht'—every person from Bremen says that, but I still don't know what it was meant to mean originally.

    Trinity—threesomeness—has some interesting properties. Two is the smallest number that you can divide things into, but it is rarely a perfect fit. We say Day and Night fully well knowing that there's a dusk and a dawn to be reckoned with, too. Three is the smallest number that can satisfy the wish for an oversimplified exposition of 'how things really are' without becoming unreasonable. In SQL (the database query language) there's a three-valued logic to account for things that can't be said to have or not have a given property (call it modus SpongeBob Squarepants a.k.a. "some other third thing").

    We live in a three-dimensional world. In the Daodejing, one famous stanza counts up from The Dao (which can in the context be understood as Sunyata—Emptyness—or Zero) over One, Two and Three to progress to 'The Myriad beings' that spring from the Three; this may be conceptualized as a trinity (1,2,3) that is one element in a more comprehensive trinity ((0),(1,2,3),(∞)) (or the empty set, the set of countables, and the set of uncountable-ness in its various shades including continua). A table with three legs will not shake; two legs is not enough, four legs is one too many for this property.

    The list goes on and on; three is a very special number. I've heard that you can only hold up to five or seven things in your mind at the same time, and to immediately tell the number of dots in a frame can not be done with more than that number. While I find Professor Miller's Indo-European theory very interesting, I wonder whether and how one could demonstrate threesomeness to be a particularly I.-E. feature in face of the fact that other cultures with counting words trivially also have nothing but the same small number of small numbers [sic] to build their linguistic, philosophical and religious systems from. Certainly groupings of three must be very frequent in the world's languages, their literatures and their slogans.

    Ah yes and that book title, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. A very good way to anchor something in the mind; I can still recall a few details from Lakoff's work when I manage to bring together these exact three terms in my mind.

  13. Stephen Hart said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

    Let's not forget the Law Firm of Lamb, Curry and Rice, from Rocky and Bullwinkle.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

    "Sex [and] drugs and rock and roll" is interesting because it's both a quadricolon (if that's the right term) at the surface level but also a tricolon, given that the actual structure is [sex and drugs and [rock and roll]]. I should note that while in hindsight it seems a very Sixties-appropriate catchphrase, it is almost completely unknown to the google books corpus until the late '70's, which is consistent with the thesis that the phrase was, if not actually coined by, at least first popularized by the Ian Dury song, which was released in 1977.

    Of course it's just a light updating of the much older tricolon "wine, women, and song" with the order of the first two elements switched, perhaps simply for reasons of euphony.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    It is of course very easy to come up with an arbitrarily large number of examples of striking sounding tricolons. My free-associative mind just dug up one (actually two different lists-of-three in the same long sentence) that James Joyce put in the mouth of Stephen Dedalus a century-plus ago: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning." [FWIW I tend to misremember that as "silence cunning and exile," which is I guess more euphonious to at least my ear.]

    Of course one could probably come up with an arbitrarily large number of examples of rhetorically-striking lists-of-two or lists-of-four as well, and you'd need a very good dataset to be confident that list-of-three was really the mode. Sometimes there's even a switcheroo in the middle of the rhetoric, i.e. the very old Proverbs 30:18: "There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not," followed by a list of four.

  16. Anthony said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

    Aller guten Dinge sind drei.

  17. Y said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

    Not purely nominal, but quite effective: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    Priorities of Moore supports: Guns, God and Gays.

  19. Bartleby said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    @Stephen Hart: Or Dewey, Cheetem, and Howe.

    And let us not forget wine, women, and song.

  20. Bartleby said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

    Oops. That should be Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe.

  21. AntC said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

    @Stephen Hart Let's not forget the Law Firm …

    Sue, Grabbit & Runne [Private Eye]

    Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel [Marx Brothers]

  22. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

    There was the legendary football coach of the Florida A&M Rattlers, Jake Gaither, whose teams were mobile, agile and hostile.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

    Does "Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont" count? It didn't work.

    For a purely nominal one, there's "Freedom, God, and right," in some English versions of "Men of Harlech". I don't know enough to say whether that's political.

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

    Don't forget Churchill's famous "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."
    Oh, wait…never mind.

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    December 15, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

    Better would have been 'blood, sweat, and tears' and that most euphonious order, with 'toil' being redundant to 'sweat'. Even Churchill nodded …

  26. Benjamin Slade said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    For me, this initially got displayed as:

    "Roy Moore's 12/13/2017 non-concession speech started out this way:

    Your browser does not support the audio element.
    We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization, and our religion.

    And he goes on in the same vein, with another rhetorical tricolon:

    Your browser does not support the audio element.
    This particular race was watched not only by the people of this state, but by the entire nation, and many around the world.
    Why? Because I believe the heart and soul of our country is at stake.

    And soon he reaches this doubled triple threat:

    Your browser does not support the audio element.
    Abortion, sodomy, and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

    I was wondering why Moore was going on about my browser at such length.

  27. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    I was going to say that the problem with Moore's attempt is the lack of alliteration or rhyme or some other phonological parallelism, but then there's Churchill's "rum, sodomy, and the lash" which doesn't have any kind of parallelism I can see, not even a metrical one ("sodomy" is dactylic but "and the lash" is anapaestic). "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" uses increasing number of syllables, with the second two elements ending in a kind of dactyl. Actually, now that I think of it, "abortion, sodomy, and materialism" is not without its own rhythm.

    I remember years ago learning about particular cadences that Cicero and other ancient orators used in their prose speeches. Might be relevant here but I don't remember much at all.

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    I've seen the Churchill quote as "Rum, buggery, and the cat o' nine tails," which seems quite rhythmic to my ear.

  29. Viseguy said,

    December 16, 2017 @ 9:34 pm

    In the Spring of 2004, I sat in the public gallery for a criminal trial at the Old Bailey. The defendant was accused of assaulting his ex-girlfriend at her home. He claimed she'd invited him there, and that it had all been very amiable, and more. The prosecution mocked this story as incredible, mainly because it failed to account for the girlfriend's physical wounds. The defendant was lying, the bewigged prosecutor proclaimed, when he testified that his ex had merely invited him for a session of "coffee, cake, and canoodling".

    There was also evidence that the girlfriend was dressed in a cat suit, having just returned home from her job performing at a bar. I kid you not. The case was The Crown v. Kevin Devlin.

  30. Adam F said,

    December 17, 2017 @ 4:47 am

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Earth, Wind & Fire" yet.

  31. Adam F said,

    December 17, 2017 @ 4:49 am

    "Our chief weapon is surprise … surprise and fear … fear and surprise…. Our two weapons are fear and surprise…and ruthless efficiency…. Our *three* weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency…and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…. Our *four*…no… *Amongst* our weapons…. Amongst our weaponry…are such elements as fear, surprise…."

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 19, 2017 @ 7:01 am

    I read somewhere that "wine, women, and song" had been replaced by the "more fashionable vices" of "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll". I was incredulous at the notion that women could go out of fashion, but apparently it's less unthinkable to Moore.

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