There comes a moment in every council meeting or concert or symposium when you look at your watch and calculate when you are going to be able to get up and walk out of there.
Like a miles-per-hour calculation, our minds start a feverish computation of how much material there is still to cover, to the power of whatever old fogey is bowling this thing along, divided by the discomfort of an over-taxed bottom and the relative surface of the chair.
Last night the Shrewsday family sat down on comfy, if well-worn sofas, pre-warmed by dogs who shouldn’t have been there because they’re not allowed on the chairs, to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
The hour between nine and ten flew by. The children, despite our best intentions, were still up. I ushered them off to bed like one of those Mary Poppinses who chased off Voldemort which such umbrella-armed effiiciency.
And then it was the parade.
Three of us sat there, me, Phil and my Mother in law, watching everyone walk by with huge beams on their faces.
Apart from Greece, who came first as usual. Then there were 14 countries beginning with A. And 19 countries beginning with B. By the time they got to C we were glad of those dog-eared sofas.
“We’re going to be here all night!” exclaimed Phil, a note of slight hysteria in his voice.
My mother in law, an unsung logico-mathematical hero, was thinking ahead, calculating the countries who could be in the ‘C’ category. The whole thing took on the surreal feeling of a crossword puzzle. Who would come next?
The answer? 19 ‘C’s. Starting with Cambodia, finishing with the Czech republic.
Only 23 more letters to go.
I couldn’t stand the pace. I bailed out at ‘T’, leaving Phil strict instructions to brief me on the rest.
Alphabetical order: fine if your name is Adams, less enchanting if you’re called Zimmerman. An algorithm which dominates our lives and our watches and occasionally, our very self worth.
It is fortunate that Iceland was not running the games, because Zimbabwe and Zaire would have been drinking coffee in the changing rooms, for the Icelandic alphabet has no Z.
And one must be thankful that the Welsh contribution was ‘Bread of Heaven’ and not their alphabetical order. There, ph, rh, and th are considered single letters. I have no idea of the reasons behind this baffling ordering lifted from Wikipedia: LAWR, LWCUS, LLONG, LLOM, LLONGYFARCH.
It has been round since the Romans at least: Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro wrote lots of alphabetical lists. But it was not until the dawn of the seventeenth century that someone thought about ordering them in a dictionary.
Written by a troublesome clergymam who simply would not preach the state-approved sermons, A Table Alphabetical was the first attempt to publish a monolingual dictionary. Robert Cawdrey not only listed words in alphabetical order, from abandon to zodiack; he explained the process too.
“If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) right-ly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table, and such like,”, he writes, “then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfecty without booke, and where euery Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the mid-dest, and (t) toward the end. “
Where every letter standeth.
So Afghanistan standeth at the beginning when I was still awake: and Zimbabwe standeth at the end, when a bleary-eyed Phil and his mother were propping their eyes open with matchsticks.
We were all captive, last night, to the tyrannical, immoveable algorithm that is alphabetical order.
Picture source here