Middle Fingers to Order

A few weeks ago in class, Dr. McCoy asked us to line up in alphabetical order by last name. For a relatively large group of people, I think we were able to accomplish the task pretty quickly. Everyone seemed to have a general awareness of where in the line-up they would fall. Having been ordered in this way for most of our public lives, we had grown used to it. While discussing this later in the class period, my classmates and I questioned why we often situate things alphabetically. Thinking of dictionaries, The Bedford, work cited pages, and indexes, we determined that the reason is ultimately to make things easier to organize. Many people learn their ABCs when they’re very young children and they don’t ever forget them; it makes sense to use something so deeply ingrained in our heads to organize most of our lives.

My classmate Sarah brought up an interesting point, however; what even is alphabetical order? Why are the letters even listed in the specific order that they are? Everyone in my group laughed a little; none of us knew the answer to these questions, and we felt a bit silly–why are we so keen on following alphabetical order when we don’t even know why the order exists in the first place?

Needless to say, the whole conversation made me curious as to why our alphabet is the way it is. After researching for awhile online, I ultimately gave up, unsatisfied. One article from Oxford Dictionaries asked the question, “Why is the alphabet arranged the way it is?” in its title. The first sentence replied with, “This is an intriguing but unanswerable question.” I think that sums things up pretty well. While we do know how our alphabet developed (originally from the Phoenician alphabet, which became the Greek alphabet, then the Etruscan alphabet, then the Roman alphabet, and then finally our modern day ABCs), we still really don’t know why it’s ordered the way it is.

In my opinion, it’s very strange that we let such an arbitrary arrangement of letters control the way we order our lives. Percival Everett’s abecedarian set of poems Zulus in his book re: f(gesture) seems to comment upon this. Even though the poems are set up to be ordered, they turn out to be anything but, deliberately disobeying the order that they first establish. In many ways, the poems are giving a big f(gesture) (f-off gesture… middle fingers) to arbitrary order.

One example of this reveals itself only a few lines into the “A” section. The speaker states, “So, A is for Solomon, for there are better for S” (Everett 15). The rules of alphabetical organization are already broken in the very first section. Thinking about this in terms of our alphabetical name organization in class, I have to laugh a little bit. Imagine what might happen if someone’s last name started with “S”, but they went to the beginning of the line claiming that was where they belong, among those whose names begin with “A.” I think everyone would be a little dumbfounded. The immediate thought, at least for me, would be “that’s wrong.” Zulus, however, makes me question why I would think that. Perhaps order is overrated, and we let it control us and our actions far too much.

At the same time, the phrase “for there are better for S” prompts action–in my case, upon reading that, I wanted to flip to the “S” section and see what this meant. What is more important than Solomon in the “S” section? I had to go there to find out. As soon as I did, I was disobeying order once again. Instead of following the strict, alphabetical format, I went from “A” to “S” without worrying about what was in between until later. I found myself doing this multiple times while reading through Zulus, and I think that through this, it becomes evident that order isn’t very important at all, especially when you are looking to foster understanding.

Looking at resources that are in alphabetical order affirms this notion. For example, take The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms; the many terms within the text are listed in alphabetical order. First of all, it would be a rarity for anyone to actually read The Bedford in the order it’s written; rather, someone would most likely flip through to the section of whatever letter the term they were interested in finding began with. Even if someone were to try and read The Bedford in alphabetical order, they would not be able to do so if they wanted to truly understand everything they were reading. The Bedford, in a similar fashion as Zulus, encourages the reader to go out of order. The very first definition in The Bedford for the term “absence” closes with the note “See presence and absence for a more complete discussion” (Murfin & Ray 1). That has the reader jumping to the “P” section before barely even scratching the surface of the “A” section let alone all the other letters in between. I feel that Zulus tries to encourage this disobedience of established order; use it when it’s useful to you, but at the same time, do not let yourself be governed by a system that is arbitrary if that’s going to hinder progress. The way we order things can be very helpful, but it should not be binding and restrictive.

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