A friend of mine, Joe, entered the U.S. Army. He was a Harvard grad and a Fulbright Scholar, so the Army made him the company clerk. On his first day, the sergeant said, “In the Army we have a way of filing papers in order.” Joe asked, “Like a-b-c?” The sergeant nodded in approval. Apparently Joe had already broken the code. We must wonder, when we have nothing else to do, just why we put things in a certain order, like the alphabet, colors of the flag (why not white, blue and red?) and 1, 2, 3. In most cases it’s because someone sometime put down that order and the rest of us were too lazy to change it. Take the Beatles – they are always listed as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Why? On Halloween maybe we should have the kids ask, “Treat or trick?” We say, “He was born and bred.” Wrong order. He was first bred and then born.
There is the sex order, for instance. Why does the male always get first mention? Why not Eve and Adam? Delilah and Sampson? Mrs. and Mr.? I’ll bet, at a Washington function, the couple is not introduced as “the Honorable Justice Ginsberg and What’s-His-Name.” Some day we might see, “May I introduce President Warren and her Second Husband?” In light of the #MeToo movement, the order might soon change to “Couples” or maybe, “These Two.” But we do have some leading ladies such as Anna and the King of Siam along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Jack and Jill make sense. You can’t put your baby to sleep with, “Jill and Jack went up the hill,” although it was that clumsy Jack who fell down, causing poor Jill to come tumbling after.
“Men, women and children” are always listed in that order to be counted or massacred, but not in line for the lifeboats. “Lock, stock and barrel” is a merism (figure of speech). The term was first recorded in the letters of Sir Walter Scott in 1817, in the line, “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock and barrel, to put her into repair.” But this phrase may have been used earlier. We always say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” in that order because the New Testament lists them that way, but there is some question if their writings are in chronological order. The first time “hook, line and sinker” appeared in print was 1838, the same year tempest in a teapot, necktie and sanitary made their initial appearance. And who’s on first? Why did Abbott get top billing over Costello?
Tinker to Evers to Chance is a metaphor for teamwork or precision. It’s not used much anymore, but in the early 1900s there were three Chicago Cubs infielders, shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance. They were an automatic double (and sometimes triple) play. A sportswriter, Franklin Pierce Adams, wrote a poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” about any player going against the trio: “These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance. Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds, Tinker and Evers and Chance.’” And so on. From 1906 to 1910, they turned 491 double plays and helped the Cubs win four National League championships and two World Series. The listing has been used in songs, in a poem by Ogden Nash and by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men.”
Often we change or edit the order. Winston Churchill did not say, “Blood, sweat and tears.” In May 1940 Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons in which he declared: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Actually, he sort of stole the phrase. In 1611 John Donne wrote a similar line. So did Byron, Browning, and Gladstone. Today we leave out “toil” and “sweat,” maybe because they sound like too much effort and sacrifice. “As quick as 1, 2, 3,” we say, except for NASA which counts, “3, 2, 1.” Our order of numbers began with the Egyptians, then the Greeks and Romans added their twist. Around the late 14th century Europe adopted the Hindu-Arabic system of numbers because all those Roman X’s and V’s were too clumsy, although the Super Bowl clings on with Super Bowl XXII and such. Maybe it has something to do with gladiators.
What about our alphabet? No one seems to know who put the letters in that order, apparently some Phoenician, but that scribe did have the good sense to put the little-used x and z at the end. On the other hand, he should have come up with a better name for w. OK, it looks like two u’s, so it’s a double-u. The Phoenician should have done away with the letter c. Take the word “circus” which should be spelled “sirkus.” When the Soviets took over Russia, they abolished a couple of unneeded letters in their Cyrillic alphabet. A good idea. The whole world has adopted the Gregorian calendar with 365 days in a year and 366 days in a leap year, except Ethiopia which uses the Coptic Calendar. It has 13 months. That’s a good trivia question. Traffic lights turn green, yellow and red for obvious reasons.
“Hooray for the red, white and blue,” the song goes. But why that order? On June 14, 1777, in Philadelphia, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution that read: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” The Founding Fathers made no mention of order except for the alternate colors.
As for Joe the company clerk, he overcame the confusion of Army filing and went on to become executive editor of The New York Times, which uses the same letters.
Ashby is in disorder at email@example.com