Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
What’s in a letter or two? Dürer’s rhinos would be lonely without his monograms. Gershwin’s heroines dreamt of enhancing theirs by adding the initials of their crushes. And in the golden age of crime fiction – Desdemona’s strawberries seeming too subtle – few handkerchiefs lacked the letters that could kill the alibis of their owners. That said, on facing an overconfident Cadillac salesman, the uncertainty of Evan S. Connell’s unlikely hero, Mr Bridge, is only settled when he’s told that “many of our owners prefer three initials” printed on their new cars’ fenders: “the suggestion that he should advertise himself by putting his initials on the door was so offensive that several weeks after the demonstration he bought a Chrysler”.
Some girl in a bar, who was also called Rebecca, once told me about her faith in numerology. She even ran a premium-rate phone line, scamming customers into trusting in the fates awaiting them, based on the mystic ‘numerical value’ of their names. I asked what ‘Rebecca’ revealed, and she said I had a great future. So great, in fact, that she’d changed her name to it from something else – the contradiction of which still makes me smile.
But what effects do the names we’re given have on us? Endless studies confirm the ballot-paper expediency of being early in the alphabet. And, in The Folly of Fools, Robert Trivers, the American evolutionary biologist, discusses ‘name-letter biases’ at length – from a general theory professing a universal preference for the letters contained within one’s own name, to suggestions about specific tendencies, such as living in places that share the first four letters of our surnames. He tells us that ‘people with a C or a D at the beginning of either their first or last names show lower academic performance (grade-point average) than do those with As, Bs, or other letters, apparently because lower grades (Cs and Ds) are (unconsciously) less aversive to them’.
What about E, however? As any crossword fan knows, that letter (or, ok, more usually her full monogram) represents the Queen. And here’s why – using four words de jour – it seems a topical signifier:
Times have changed since the Queen’s ancestors synonymised this. Might it be the word of 2017? What will the coming Supreme Court Brexit judgement mean for ‘executive power’ here in Britain? Will this judgement and related developments force us to define, justify, and codify its content officially, once and for all? Has this flexible uncertainty been part of our national strength? Or have changes already left that idea impotent? One to watch, for sure.
Owen Jones is to this as the Green Party is to environmentalism: the way in which they’re seen to have conquered ‘their’ topics lets their own biases propagate. The latter’s green policy is lacking, and what I remember of Jones’s The Establishment is that, for all he criticises other typical ‘establishment’ groups, he avoids much mention of Oxbridge, where he went. We hate relying on experts (see below) nowadays, anyway, so I ran a little ‘what’s the establishment?’ vox pop, instead. Answers included the classic suspects, but with the added cynicism you’d expect. This ranged from “whatever group of people the person using the phrase wants to project blame on for their own perceived injustices and life failings”, to “anyone who has any incentive in keeping things as they are”. The neatest was simply “the powers that be”.
This is one of those words that still fares well in the locker room, but, elsewhere, leaves us uncomfortable – nowhere more than the political playing field. Reports such as the Sutton Trust’s Parliamentary Privilege series claim that ‘parliament is becoming slightly more representative than it was’, yet revel in the relatively numerous MPs who went to high-end research-led universities, independent schools, and particularly Eton (10 per cent). There’s no time here to address this properly, but it’s unhelpful to conflate attendance at famous schools with having the academic aptitude to go to an elite university. It seems right to want to ensure that everyone has equal chances to pursue the opportunities that might take them to the top of their chosen vocation; it’s counter-productive to be angry that there are such goals to which to aspire.
I guess it’s inappropriate to look this up in my twenty-volume OED. Or is it? Surely, those claiming to hate experts don’t mean experts in their totality. Of the masses extending their wrath towards dictionary compilers, presumably only a subset feels similarly about brain surgeons. And fewer again might scorn pilots (though Trivers has great reasons why we should).
The real problem is that we don’t like being lectured about things we think we already know, usually based (somewhat ironically) on our own perceived depth of experience or knowledge. (Hence why it’s especially hard to name popular education or health secretaries.) We might be happy for Henry Marsh to clip our aneurisms, but guys like him – or Prince Charles – had better not weigh in on other stuff (unless they agree with us). The deeper problem, of course, is increased awareness of the disappointment awaiting those wanting easy empirical answers to complex or even empirically-unanswerable questions of politics and economics.
Any conspiracy theory stemming from E’s ubiquity can – aside from the excuse of a long-winded run-in to a Christmas-holiday column – be easily refuted. On top of coincidence, links between thematic words that happen to begin with the same letter can often be explained through commonality of prefixes, more reasons of progeny, and other phrases including words beginning with P. And, while Trivers does seem convinced that “if your name is Charles Darwin, you will tend to do slightly less well academically than everyone else around you”, he debunks grander suggestions*:
‘For one brief shining moment, it appeared as if the name-letter effect had widespread important effects on our behaviour of which we were completely unconscious. […] People appeared to be making major life decisions based on trivial egoistic coincidences. […] Fortunately, perhaps, the entire edifice collapsed when a very careful reanalysis […] showed that every single one was due to hidden biases in procedure or logic.’
Nonetheless, you haven’t seen the end of the powerful Es yet. Not least – and this is my one prediction for 2017 – ‘election’.
*Including the surname-residence suggestion.