“Trifecta” Not Always Appropriate

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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:

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11 thoughts on ““Trifecta” Not Always Appropriate”

  1. My understanding is that ‘trifecta’ has connotations of ‘three out of three’ rather than just an arbitrary three of something.

    If “Jerrod Niemann Completes a Country Music Trifecta” by playing at the Grand Old Opry, that would suggest to me that there are three big name venues for country music, and that Jerrod Niemann has already played at the other two.

    I’d not heard the term until I came to Australia, so it could just be my faulty understanding…

  2. I’d also understood it three out of three. I think of horseracing here in the states (the triple crown). I have also heard “virtual trifecta” applied to lesser achievements.

  3. I agree that trifecta should not be used to mean any trio, but in the example:
    “…unexpected trifecta of high gas prices, vanishing credit, and a deep recession hit.””

    I think it’s appropriate. The companies do make predictions about economy and it was probably a long short that those three factors happened all at once. The fact that those three things resulted in a big loss rather than a big win is simple irony, like saying you’re ‘batting a thousand’ when you’ve missed every time.


  4. “The word “trifecta” implies winning. High gas prices, vanishing credit, and a deep recession hardly fit the connotation.

    I first encountered trifecta with regard to the horse racing triple crown – winning all three of the big horse races. I was told (probably unfairly) that the French language has three numbers: One, Two, and Many. That the French “tres bon” means “many good things”, and not “three good things.”

    I have no trouble considering trifecta to mean all of what is possible, a “complete” win or complete success.

    As for the GM, Ford, Chrysler usage – as hate is related to love, a perfect disaster is statistically as likely as a perfect win – and using trifecta to refer to a statistically unlikely combination of disasters as well as unlikely winning combinations works for me.

    I can also generalize trifecta to be statistically unlikely – making the group of three an intimation rather than required part of the definition. I don’t use the word trifecta, and don’t plan to. But I do understand that the meaning is statistically unlikely, and derived from the unlikely combination of three statistically challenging variables.

    As for the three in a row thing, that seems to stretch the word.

  5. I guess we could say that, etymologically, trifecta means “three things (because it’s a latin neuter plural) done/accomplished”, so the winning implication, as told, sounds nice.

  6. I can’t believe the word has been around that long! Fortunately for me I don’t move in circles that use it.

    This is nothing short of annoying, to me. Thank you for setting things straight!

    It just goes to show that when people try to make themselves sound intelligent without knowing what they’re doing, they end up sounding like morons.

  7. Um, Brad K? The French word for “three” is “trois”; “tres” means “many,” and would not be used in counting.

    I may be too much of a stickler–but trifecta was coined to refer to accurately prediction (by betting on) the first three horses to pass the winning post in a horse race, and the order in which they will pass it. While using it by analogy to refer to a similar type of event may be permissible, none of the events referred to here are in fact similar. There are other ways to refer to, for example, performing at the three premier venues for country music (actually, “Triple Crown,” might work there). Figurative language needs to be used as precisely as possible, or it loses effectiveness.

  8. Um, Kathryn and Brad, actually French ‘très’ (note the accent) means ‘very’, not ‘many’. ‘Très bon’ just means ‘very good’, not ‘many good things’! It has no connexion whatever with ‘three’.
    I am (I count it fortunate) new to this ‘perfecta/trifecta’ craze: it is thus far foreign to the UK. ‘Perfecta’ in Spanish comes direct from the same word in Latin, with the meaning of ‘complete(d)’. ‘Trifecta’, on the other hand, is a clumsy coining in (presumably American) English, without sensible etymology, however fashionable it may be among the chattering classes. Given that the wretched thing now exists, at least a) use it as precisely as may be and b) don’t let escape, please.

  9. Tony–Oops! Sorry, yes, “very,” not “many.” What WAS I thinking of? (Oddly enough, when planning that post I was in fact thinking “very,” but apparently my fingers decided to ignore my brain. Too common an event!)

  10. Yes, if you’re Dostoyevsky you could talk about a driverless Troika. Or if you’re in a frisky mood, try a threesome. The auto industry bit cited here sounds like they were reaching for the cliche, “A Perfect Storm.” I can accept average people repeating misapplied phrases they hear, but writers should know better. Knowing the true origin of words isn’t trivial — using them correctly adds oomph!, humor, and clarity!

  11. I had a series of maladies all in the last year. Gall bladder removal, shingles, and a broken shoulder from a fall on ice. I called it a “trifecta, if that’s the word.” I then decided to look up the meaning. It shows that my untutored mind was wrong in thinking it was just a fancy word for three notable events. From what I have read, though, my usage would be correct in an ironic sense.
    Is there an appropriate antonym for “trifecta”?

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