Friday 2 April 2010

Nolo Episcopari and the Rule of the Bellman

Going on dates is an awkward thing if you're a man, [don't worry, this blog is not about to turn into a whining, mewling narrative of my wayward lusts] especially when it comes to payment [don't worry, I'm not talking about prostitution]. When the waiter brings the bill to the candlelit table it is a given that the man will try to pay for the whole thing - both burgers - but it is also a given that the woman will make some sort of frail offer to go halves, that's what feminism is. It must have been far easier for Casanova, whose birthday it would have been today.

The man now starts insisting that he will pay. And the woman? She will probably feel that she should insist a bit too, if only for show, or perhaps she means it. Perhaps she really wants to pay. Perhaps my target for the evening doesn't want to feel in hock to this strange man with the scrupulously waxed moustache, the riding crop and the plus fours.

One is therefore likely to be caught up in a back and forth of "No really" "No I insist" "I insist" "But I had a pudding". And you don't know when to stop and say "All right. We'll go Dutch."

After the first offer? The second? The seventeenth?

You don't know, but I do. For I long ago adopted the Rule of the Bellman. If she offers to pay three times, she's paying. [I should make clear 1) That this only includes direct offers of payment, "But it's so expensive" does not count 2) That this is not necessarily good advice. I have seen a fair few young ladies, aghast at my acquiesence, reaching reluctantly for their purses before spitting at me and stalking out.]

I call it the Rule of the Bellman because everything I learnt about romance I learnt from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll*

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, just not in the way Shelley thought. It is because ofr the Bellman's Rule that three offers means a split bill.

Great men other than myself have used the Rule of the Bellman. Theodore Roosevelt told Edith Wharton:
'I am glad to welcome to the White House someone to whom I can quote The Hunting of the Snark without being asked what I mean! ... Would you believe it, no one in the administration has ever heard of Alice, much less of the Snark, and the other day, when I said to the Secretary of the Navy: "Mr Secretary, What I say three times is true", he did not recognize the allusion, and answered with an aggrieved air: "Mr President, it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity"!'
There's also a short story called Chaos, Co-Ordinated published in Astounding Science Fiction (1946) in which the humans manage to feed The Hunting of the Snark into the alien supercomputer as a field report and thus save the earth, largely because the computer now runs on the Rule of the Bellman and wipes its own memory of everything that it has heard only once.

But then I discovered that the rule of three was not invented by Lewis Carroll. It is far older and used to be called nolo episcopari: I don't want to be a bishop. The idea was that when somebody was appointed bishop it was a given that they would be too humble to accept the post: that's what Christian humility means. So they would say nolo episcopari meaning "I don't want to be a bishop". They were meant to say this twice as a matter of etiquette. On the third request they were meant to surrender and take the mitre. If they did not, if they said nolo episcopari a third time, it was assumed that they were telling the truth and a new candidate was sought. To say something twice may be mere manners, Truth speaks thrice.

This custom was recorded by Edward Chamberlayne (not to be confused with Charlemagne (I only mention Charlemagne because today would have been his birthday)).

Anyway, that's my rule. The rule of three, because three is beautiful. For example, observe this goal from Euro '96 where three people, including Teddy Sheringham, pass the ball across the face of the goal before making the score three nil (I only mention Teddy Sheringham only because today would have been his birthday).

Incidentally, there's a splendid blog devoted to The Hunting of the Snark which can be found here. At least I think it's splendid (I only mention me because it would have been my birthday today).

*It should perhaps be noted that Lewis Carroll never married and was probably a pederast.


  1. * So was Lord Lever if his art collection is anything to go by.

    ** Happy Birthday, Dogberry! May your returns be happy and plentiful.

    *** I apply the Rule of Three to 'urgent' emails. Ignore the first request, and the second. If it really IS important, they'll email a third time. Cuts the work load quite dramatically.

  2. I find it even more effective, when someone says, 'I'll pay for this' to say, 'Oh, thanks, chum. My turn next time.' I do the same thing the next time. Works well.

  3. Felix dies natalis tibi
    Felis dies natalis tibi
    Felix dies natalis, Inky
    Felix dies natalis tibi

  4. Hunting Snarks is a little like trying to find a sensible comment left on a post in Blogland ... But then, who wants one of those anyway? :) Oh, and Joyeux Anniversaire if it's applicable.

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  8. Jinksy, you miscounted.

    Inky, I'm curious. Why would it have been your birthday today? Are you dictating these wonderful posts from beyond the grave?

    Your range is astonishing. In all senses.

  9. So sorry - Blogger seems to have thrown a fit yesterday - kept telling me my comment hadn't worked ! I don't normally repeat myself so often!!

  10. Thank you, Dogberry, for recommending my humble Snark blog! I did not know about the nolo epispcopari, this means extra research hours for my team of crack crack-head research assistants, but so be it … Snarkology is an evolving science.

    The business of refusing 3 times seems widespread & ancient … certain groups in Indian culture have a similar custom. When a person is offered a dish or treat, they refuse 3 times, the host pressing harder & harder, only after 3 times do they accept the dish.

    there are some who wonder why the Bellman does not simply announce, three times, that there's a Snark in view, and thus complete the quest. Such persons are heretics and obviously have no idea of how to make a shared delusional cognitive system work properly. Blasphemers!

  11. "In the midst of the word she was trying to say,
    In the midst of her laughter and glee,
    She slowly and silently vanished away---
    (On) the Snark was a Boojum, you see."

  12. This reminds me that Caesar rejects three times an offer of the crown from Mark Antony; Peter denies knowing Jesus thrice before the cock crows; and the witches in Macbeth repeat spells three times because 'the third time is the charm.'