I wondered when the saying “Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is–” (this varies) was first used. The Internet will tell you it’s in the James Bond novel, Goldfinger (1959), in the form “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action”, and that is no doubt what popularised it. This site goes further by pointing out it appears in print in the 1920s. However, if you keep reading down, you’ll find a quote from the New York Sun, from 7 May 1905:
“Violets always mean man,” said one girl to another in a Broadway florist’s recently: “If a girl wears violets once it may be an accident; twice, coincidence; after that it means a man.”
A bit closer to home, it turns up again on the two months later in the Melbourne Argus, in a report on a football game between Fitzroy and St Kilda:
When that sort of thing happens once it is an accident when it happens twice, it is an accident when it happens three times, the player needs to be warned that Fitzroy does not play that sort of football.
So twice might be a coincidence, but the same idea & similar wording appearing in different newspapers in different contexts within weeks of each other suggests another earlier source.
To come forward a little bit to 1911, and a line in the Darling Downs Gazette confirms “Once is an accident” has made its way into everyday conversation:
To this kind of thing we feel justified in thinking with the judge who, when adjudicating over a certain case, said that the incident happening once might be an accident, twice might be a coincidence, but three times looked like a habit.
Prior to 1905 though? The year before, a Bathurst newspaper offers a quote from a deceased resident: If a man takes me in once, that’s an accident; if he fools me twice, that is my fault, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen often.
Which is a paraphrasing of “Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on me” the origins of which seem to be have been lost in time. (That is, it’s a very old an old saying.) A mixing of two sayings or a mixing of the older saying with something he’d heard more recently?
I can’t find any earlier occurrence of the “once is an accident” idea, or the once/twice/three times format. Once/twice occurs a few times, the best known one being from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnet (1895):
To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
And the 1880s gives:
When Lord Melbourne was staying at Nuncham, his host, Archbishop Vernon-Harcourt, asked him to come to evening service, be having already attended church in the morning. “No, my lord,” was the reply. “Once is orthodox, twice is Puritanical.”
The Australasian, 6 November 1886
Many Frenchmen think that a man who marries once is a fool, while a man who marries twice is mad outright.
Northern Territory Times, 17 April 1886
So, was there a book or song or play in the 1900s that used the line, maybe a riff on the Importance of Being Earnest? A popular saying never committed to print until 1905? Random people simultaneously coming up with a similar saying for no apparent reason? Shall we ever know?
(Image: random image that has nothing to do with content, with a “ghost car”. The white line is car headlights on a very slow shutter speed. Night time photograph is fun 🙂