Right through your early life, your last name is something you’re stuck with. When the teacher calls the roll, the Adamses and Allens of this world are always up the front, while the Winters, Youngs and Zammits are right down the end.
As a Trezise, I was pretty well down towards the bottom of the list. And I have since developed a theory about the trauma suffered by kids who always had to wait…and wait…and wait…to hear their names called. We kids at the end of the alphabet were an underprivileged group. We were always last to get our books handed out, last to get our locker keys, last to get our free milk.
The only time being last was something of a blessing was when we lined up for our polio injections. Even then, the pleasure of putting off the evil moment was somewhat tempered by having longer to listen to the whimpering of the kids at the head of the line, and longer to observe the returning injectees clutching their wounded arms and making no effort to conceal the agony on their faces.
And the discrimination continues even into adulthood. You’re always near the bottom of the office phone list, listed last on memos and by the time you get trade magazines they’re always six months out of date. Why? You’re last on the circulation list, of course. Spare a thought for poor Ms or Mr Zyznik – stone motherless last even in the telephone directory.
We T’s, U’s, V’s, W’s, X’s, Y’s and Z’s were alphabetically deprived, that’s what we were. And with any form of deprivation, there are bound to be consequences.
Of the 20,000 famous men and women throughout history listed in Chambers Biographical Dictionary, two-thirds come from that alphabetically privileged group – the first half. Yep, there are a whole lot more Caesars and Cleopatras, Einsteins and Emersons, Harlows and Husseins than there are Pankhursts, Rasputins and Zolas.
As you’d expect, not only are these folks the most famous, they’re also the most quoted. Sixty-five per cent of the bon mots in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations also come from the A to M’s. Of course their ranks are swelled by that prolifically quoted chappy Anon. who’s right up there at the front of the book.
A quick check of recent prime ministers of Australia confirms my theory that it pays to be up front. Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser, McMahon (squeaked in), Gorton, Holt. Of course, Gough Whitlam was the exception to the rule, but we all know what happened to him.
The only people who don’t appear to be put off by your lowly alphabetic standing are the telemarketers. They seem to get you, no matter what. But wait a minute here! Perhaps, having identified a psychologically needy and vulnerable group in the community, the fast-talking sales sharks are actually starting at the back of the phone book.
Men are more or less stuck with their alphabetical status. Of course, there’s the Deed Poll option, but it does seem a touch desperate unless you’re a pop star or a political candidate who wants a higher place on the ballot paper. (Another classic example of how fortune favours the A’s.) However, at a certain point in my life, I realised that women had an easy way out. They could get married.
Mind you, my first marriage was a mere shuffle in the desired direction. Becoming Jan Saines, rather than Jan Trezise, did move me up the alphabet a tad, but was hardly a dramatic improvement. Little wonder the relationship didn’t last.
My second attempt was somewhat more auspicious. However, you could hardly describe it as an alphabetical long-jump. From S to O, a mere four letters. Leaving me once more in the second half of the population, albeit rarely at the bottom of the list.
While still recovering from the failure of this second exercise in alphabetical advancement, I took myself off to the swanky health farm, Camp Eden, for a little Pritikin food and navel gazing. What a revelation! Only first names were used in this utopian environment. Although the lists of whose massage session was at which time were still arranged alphabetically, I was right up there among the J’s. Bliss.
Then along came Mr Harden. So what contradictory impulse made me hang onto the name of O’Connell, even after we decided to formalise our relationship? Was it to make life easier for my children and not having to explain that “I’m Jan Harden, Jackie O’Connell’s mum”? Was it maintaining my professional identity? Or did I just get comfortable in the latter half of the alphabet?
Let’s just call it delayed gratification. When my daughters abandon their surname (hopefully to embrace a Mr Brown or a Mr Davis) and I say goodbye to office life, I’m there. Jan Harden. I like the sound of it already.