Idiom: 三下五除二

I was speaking to my mom on the phone today when I heard and then dwelled on a phrase I know but, as it turns out, don’t really understand.

I’m talking about…

三下五除二 | sān xià wǔ chú èr

I’ve always heard this while I was growing up, and based on context clues, have gathered that it means to do something quickly, decisively, effectively…and that’s essentially what it means. But more interesting is its literal origins, which I only found out after doing some googling today.

As you might be able to tell, there are a lot of numbers in there: 三 (three) 五 (five)  二 (two), so it shouldn’t be too surprising that this idiom comes from a calculation formula for the abacus, which I totally don’t remember how to use…And I’m not sure how that formula works either (3 = 5-2?), but I guess the main point is that doing calculations on an abacus is much faster than using fingers or physical objects…Fun!

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