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the world's best and worst ordering system at the same time
An interesting paradox about alphabetical order: there are no organizing principles to the alphabet itself, which is what makes it so good as a random system. Why does -A- come first and -Z- last? Why does -O- come after -P-? Nobody knows. The answers are forever clouded by time.
As a result, alphabetical order is as close to randomness as you can get. In fact, alphabetical order is an interesting oxymoron, no? Yet it is also the single most commonly used method to organize things in daily life.
There’s a price to pay, however, for such a clean system: the ordering of all the words of a given language by their initial letters creates chaos at any other level. Roots or syllables, for example, or parts of speech, and most consequentially, issues of meaning. Why for example, is cat 53 pages away from feline in one dictionary, and nowhere near lion, snow leopard, or Maine Coon cat? Shouldn’t all the kitty-cats be together?
We can easily put them together if we want, so that words in the same “family” provide a rich context for the word you are looking up. Sort of like the produce section in the supermarket--only for words. Potatoes, onions, and squash are all together in the produce aisle, and pickles, hot sauce, and mayonnaise are near one another in Aisle 9.
Fortunately, computers are making some of this work easier to do. Where there was only a dictionary and a thesaurus before, online materials have already made possible an array of interesting searches, including, for example:
These unconventional search parameters make it possible to ask questions we could not have imagined without them.
Further reading: see the entry on choosing words with care, and the entry on corpus linguistics.
One of these things is not like the others--except in a dictionary