Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Letter A

Who doesn’t love the letter A? 

And why wouldn’t you? It’s not only the first letter in the “English” alphabet (actually Latin or Roman), it symbolizes accomplishment and excellence in almost every context.

In my family the power of the “A” became apparent in grade school. My grandmother paid my brothers and I for A’s on our Report Card—for B’s you got zilch—in her mind there was no second place. You were either “A” material worth rewarding, or you weren’t. Period.

And we know that being “A-1” is the best; the "A-Train" has to be good; and "Triple A", well that’s just over the top—OK, other than in the military context. Those with last names beginning with “A” love being first on the list, first to be called and have an overwhelming superiority complex—trust me, I know, I was in business with a guy whose named started with A.

Graphic designers, calligraphers, artists and typographers all love the letter A. In corporate and brand identity, it’s a letter which is often customized to form a unique but still recognizable letterform—like the 2- sided triangular form used in the (old) NASA logo.

Other than Hester Prynne’s unfortunate “A”, all other symbolism and associations to the letterform “A” are positive, or at least neutral. In math, the first corner of a triangle is “a”; and in a hexadecimal numbering system, A is equal to the digit 10—and 10 is a nice number too, right?

"A" is the third most common letter in the English language—it’s the second most common in French & Spanish. The “A-Team” brings their “A-Game” and finds success. (although the TV show “The A-Team” left something to be desired)

In Morse code, the letter A is “dot, dash” one of only four Morse code letters formed by less than three dots or dashes ( “E” being the shortest, represented by “dot”) In the Military Phonetic Alphabet,  A is represented by “alpha”—also the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and part of the historical basis for our letter “A”. It’s also a descendant of “aleph” in the Phoenician alphabet, and before that, an ox head in Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

The letter is also a word—an indefinite article used before singular nouns—“A goofball with a computer ambled through town today with his Blog…”—well you get the idea.

The letterform "A" is an important one. Everyone likes it, everyone wants to be part of the “A Group”: the best, the highest, the first, the winners. Ever use “B-1” steak sauce? Ever call “B-1” Plumbers, or have your cleaning done at a “B-1 Dry Cleaner”? Where would we be without the “A”?

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was rated “AAA” until just recently. The current financial rating system used by Moody’s and other rating agencies is plagued by a desire to try to keep assigning “A”s in their rating system, even if it may not be deserved. Their system includes: Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, and even then only drops to Baa1, Baa2…maddeningly complex but motivated by the power of “A”—we all want to be one.

OK, so maybe there are a few “A-holes” out there who want to try to diminish the importance of “A” but forget about them and concentrate on the “A-Plus” people.




crustypiman said...

Brother Dennis,

You've managed to surprise me again. Your riff on the first letter of the alphabet is quite entertaining. I guess you couldn't have added "fu*kin' A" to the list since we have to be concerned about our public use of the word "f*ck." I understand. All joking aside, you produced another little gem of writing. Got me to thinking about giving all my students A's. Not on their record. On index cards. A different A on each. What do you think?

Crustypiman = Brother James

Dennis P. Moran said...

Hey Crusty,

Thanks for the suggestion about F-in-A; it's one I forgot. In the military it's one of the most commonly used affirmatives.

Giving your students different calligraphic "A"s on index cards would be a nice treat! I'm sure they'd prefer the ones on the record though! Why not just give them their actual grade rather than all A's?