Why “in triplicate”? – one for me, one for you and one for Rome

Retraction Watch carries a report of a Japanese paper being retracted for having been published as many as three times.

A4 Full Colour Triplicate - Not Numbered - No Terms

For some reason the story immediately brought back memories of the time when I was working in Japan and and all official forms had to be submitted in “triplicate”. I remember my visits to the Japanese Labour Office to apply for extensions of my work permit and the insistence of the clerk that “triplicate” meant three identical things which therefore required that I fill in the same form in ink 3 times. My work saving solution of filling it in once, photocopying it and signing all three copies was not considered  to be in compliance.

This got me wondering a little about where and when the requirements for documents “in triplicate” had originated and why it was so popular with government departments all over the world.  This particular form from the US Treasury Department is just an example but I like their final claim that their triplicate requirement “is in accordance with the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995”. 

“Triplicate forms” generates 3.5 million hits on Google and I could easily find many thousands of government departments, hospitals, banks, pharmacies and universities requiring “triplicate” submissions from countries in every part of the world. But I have not been able to find any clear explanation for why three copies are preferred – why not 2 – or even 4? The association of “triplicate” with bureaucracy is now widespread and ubiquitous.

“The 1976 Bicentennial is not going to be invented in Washington, printed in triplicate by the Government Printing Office and mailed to you by the United States Postal Service.”  – Richard Nixon

“New Delhi is trying to show that greatness can be voted into office, if applied for in triplicate, through the proper channels.” – James Morris

I have a vague recollection that I was once told that it was connected to the use of “carbon paper”  where the quality of the writing was insufficient after the second carbon (third copy). The word “triplicate” is said to have a 15th century origin in Middle English and comes from Latin (triplicatus). There is also a suggestion that pharmacists and their predecessors required 3 copies of everything but I am not clear as to why.

But my preferred story is that the Romans are responsible. It is not inconceivable that Roman administrators in their far-flung empire outposts first started doing things in triplicate.

 “One for me, one for you and one for Rome”.

Or it could just be the mystic, magical power of the number 3!!

Perhaps somebody knows?


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One Response to “Why “in triplicate”? – one for me, one for you and one for Rome”

  1. roberto Says:

    Hi k2p
    At Brasil triplicate documents are usually unecessary!!
    We need MUCH MORE..
    more copy
    and more..AUTENTICATE at offices wich want money for it!.
    We live for take copies and I think that was a HP and Xerox conspiration.!!!

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