Craig Ulmer

What's in a Last Name?

2013-09-29 data text

Does alphabetical order push some cultures to the back of the bus? This week Livermore had its annual summer reading program award ceremony, where every reader got to shake hands with the city council. Just like last year, they lined up everyone in alphabetical order and jumbled all the grades together. They made us all show up at the same time and after registration, Benjamin's 'U' last name got him spot 594 in the line. Similar to last year, it was frustrating to watch a lot of our friends with earlier names come out the back door, tell us the process was really efficient!, and go home to have their dinner while we continued to wait. Several of the families in the back didn't know they were in for an hour-long process and hadn't fed their kids. When we pointed out how it sucked to always be last in line, the program people said it was too hard to do the line up anything but alphabetical, starting with A.

The long amount of time we had in line got me wondering if ordering people by their last name is culturally insensitive, as I suspected that each country of origin favored different sounds and letters. Later that night I went home and pulled some simple data off a "top 10 surnames by country" kind of site, computed the average starting letter for the 10 names, and plotted it. While 10 names/country isn't enough of a sample to say much of anything, the first-order numbers showed what I suspected: it sucks to use alphabetical order when you're of German descent. Poland can never catch a break either.

I'd say a hash is in order.