Q: Are “thrice” and “trice” related? If so, “in a trice” might be construed as “in triple time.”
A: No, they’re not related. “Thrice” is an old way of saying three times, while the phrase “in a trice” means in a moment or very quickly.
Although both usages are found in standard dictionaries, “thrice” is often labeled “old-fashioned,” “dated,” “mainly archaic,” and so on.
When “thrice” appeared in Middle English (spelled “þriȝes,” “þriȝess,” etc.), it was an adverb meaning “three times (in succession); on three successive occasions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The runic letter “þ” (a thorn) at the beginning sounded like “th,” and the runic “ȝ” (a yogh) in the middle sounded like “y.”
The OED says “þriȝes” is ultimately derived from þri or thrie, Old English for three, and its prehistoric ancestors, the Proto-Germanic þrijiz and the Proto-Indo-European treies.
The dictionary’s earliest “thrice” example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk identified as Orm in one part of the manuscript and Ormin in another:
“& ure Laferrd Jesu Crist / Badd hise bedess þriȝess” (“and as the Lord Jesus Christ bade, they prayed thrice”).
As for the “trice” of “in a trice,” it apparently began life in the late 14th century as a verb meaning “to pull; to pluck, snatch, draw with a sudden action.” The OED says Middle English adopted the verb from the Middle Dutch trîsen (to hoist).
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb is from “The Monk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386): “By god, out of his sete I wol hym trice” (By God, out of his throne I will snatch him [Nero]”).
In the 15th century, “trice” came to mean a pull or a tug in the expression “at a trice,” meaning “at a single pluck or pull; hence, in an instant; instantly, forthwith; without delay.” Oxford says “trice” here is apparently a noun formed from the verb.
Although “at a trice” is now obsolete, the usual version of the expression, “in a trice,” evolved from it in the 17th century. The first OED citation is from a book about Queen Elizabeth I:
“True it is, he [Sir Walter Raleigh] had gotten the Queenes eare in a trice” (Fragmenta Regalia, or, Observations on the Late Queen Elizabeth, Her Times and Favorits, 1641, by Sir Robert Naunton).