Libby Lewis wonders about the “different meanings of trifecta.”:
I had a student use it in a paper addressing racial discrimination: ‘…the United States’ ever growing trifecta of white, black, and brown.’ …another student cited an article from MuscleMag magazine entitled ‘Your Tri-Fecta for success.’…Can this word be used as a general reference to any trio?
First let’s look at the term “perfecta.” The OED identifies the gambling term as “chiefly U.S.” and defines it as a bet that requires the bettor to predict, in the correct order, the first and second finishers in a race. In New York state, this kind of bet is called an “exacta.”
The OED entry for trifecta identifies it as a betting term used principally in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s a recent (1971) addition to English and derives from American Spanish perfecta which is a shortening of quiniela perfecta, “perfect quiniela.” Quiniela, “game of chance.”
Entertainment writers were probably the first to use the word “trifecta” to mean any three awards won by an artist:
Joe Lovano hit the trifecta at the Jazz Awards, with wins for tenor saxophonist, small ensemble and record of the year, but pianist-composer Vijay Iyer walked off with musician of the year honors
They may also have been instrumental in turning “trifecta” into a mere synonym for “three” or “trio.”
How’s this for a musical trifecta: the intriguing guitarist Charlie Hunter, the swinging Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the imposing saxophone/drums/bass trio known as Fly.
Some writers use “trifecta” in any context in which three of anything figure:
Marchesa actually had a trifecta of successes.
Marchesa is a fashion house and three women wore its designs to the Emmy awards.
Jerrod Niemann Completes a Country Music Trifecta
Niemann is going to play at the Grand Old Opry. He’s already played at two other venues on his wish list.
Blue Spur eatery up for awards trifecta
The restaurant has won the award twice before.
MGM Recipients Achieve MacArthur Trifecta
Andrea Ghez won the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award in 1999. She was the third woman to win this award, hence the “trifecta” in the headline.
It’s probably a reasonable extension of the word trifecta to use it to refer to the winning of a trio of awards as here:
McMurray gave Ganassi his first Daytona 500 win in February. In May, Dario Franchitti won the Indianapolis 500 in one of Ganassi’s cars. On Sunday, Ganassi hit the unprecedented trifecta. No other car owner has won all three major races, much less in the same year.
Used willy-nilly to mean three of anything, however, it smacks of lazy writing. Its use is especially inappropriate in this New Republic piece about the automotive industry:
GM, Ford, and Chrysler are taking precisely the sorts of steps everybody says are necessary–or, at least, they were taking those steps until an unexpected trifecta of high gas prices, vanishing credit, and a deep recession hit.
The word “trifecta” implies winning. High gas prices, vanishing credit, and a deep recession hardly fit the connotation.
Here are some other “three” words to consider, depending upon the context: