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(求词源)

三长两短 is a chengyu that means "unforeseen disaster". It can also be a euphemism for death.

Here's an example of its usage:

明·罗贯中《三遂平妖传》:“万一些后再有三长两短,终不能靠着太医活命。”

What is its etymology though? One way of literally interpreting this chengyu is that it refers to three long things and two short things; what could they be?

There's a theory that it's referring to the coffin box, which is made up of three long and two short pieces of wood, but this seems like a false etymology.

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It's very common in 成语 to have adjacent numbers (e.g., 乱七八糟、七嘴八舌). I don't think there's a deep reason, although the specific numbers end up with certain connotations (e.g., the examples with 7/8 are disordered). –  Stumpy Joe Pete Feb 25 at 20:36
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3 Answers 3

theory 1: Coffin is made up of three long and two short pieces of wood. And Coffin means death, dangerous.

you also can find some clues in the wikipedia article about "使用筷子禁忌".

theory 2: Taoist forecasts through burning incenses. It is the most dangerous condition that there are three long incenses and two short incenses after burning five incences in some time.

theory 3: In ancient, a master sword maker called Ouyezi(欧冶子), made five sharp swords. Three of them are long, the others are short. And a assassin use the one called "鱼肠剑" of the five swords killed the King of enemy. So "三长两短" refers to coming across with dangerous accident.

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Maybe the answer is this

  • 学者以为三长两短指的是未盖上盖儿的棺材,因为棺材正好由三块长木板、两块短木板构成一个匣子。棺材是用来装死尸的,“三长两短”在口语中常指意外的灾祸、有生命危险的事故,或许与此有关。
    The coffin has three long wood pieces and two short wood pieces, so 三长两短 is a sign for bad things

or in Chinese 三 does not mean really numbers, it refers to huge number of things(just like 人行必有我师), so perhaps 三长两短 has something to do with it.

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This is a very good answer! –  Aw Qirui Guo Mar 14 at 8:03
    
@AwQiruiGuo Thanks for your compliment. –  Ave Maleficum Mar 14 at 9:43
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三长两短 refers to a coffin. The lower part of the coffin is made of 3 long wooden board and 2 short wooden piece of board. It is also referring to death or something very bad that related to life danger.

Other usage on non-living things, it refers to severe damage, unrecoverable malfunction or lost.

Example: 我可以把手机借给你,但是万一它有什么三长两短,你可要赔一部新的给我。

Translate: I can lend you my mobile, but if it is lost or damage, you have to replace it with a new one for me.

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