The End of “Last”?

We live in an age of comparisons.  Everything is ranked according to how it stacks up against something else.  Nothing is allowed to exist in isolation.  Or, if it does, there is a rank to assess just how isolated it is.

Activities, which are connected with the idea of competition, are natural candidates for ranking.  For example, most sports employ a ranking system of some kind: Olympic medal tables; FIFA’s top football nations; golf’s top earners––it’s all about the money with golf.  But other walks of life, which are not so obviously linked to the concept of competition are similarly ranked: world universities; elements of language in a sentence; webpages.  The fact is almost everything in life is a competition.  If there is a last judgement, it will not be to reckon up the tally of good and evil; it will be to give you your rank.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have no problem with rankings.  Within the artificial construct of a value system, I am prepared to concede that some things are better than other things, and can be ranked accordingly.  However, what I do have a problem with is the subterfuge deployed when it comes to the language associated with rankings.  And the phrase, which is at the centre of this linguistic conspiracy, is “In the top…”

In a statistically-precise world, there should be no use for the phrase “In the top…”; you are the position you are ranked and that it is.  Ninth is ninth; it is not “In the top ten”, which by its deliberate vagueness can therefore imply any position between first and tenth.

If I choose to be generous and allow “In the top…” some kind of existence, it should come with a caveat attached.  It can only be used within established rules.  For example, “In the top three” can only be used if the number of samples being ranked is greater than ten; similarly, “In the top five” should only be used for sets greater than twenty; and “In the top ten” for those over one hundred.

“In the top…” fools no one.  “In the top three” means third.  “In the top five” means fifth.  My personal favourite usage was an institution, which claimed to be “in the top eleven”.  Not hard to decipher that this translated as eleventh.  This might have had some merit, until further investigation revealed that only eleven institutions had been ranked.

Less high profile than the plight of the black rhinoceros or the snow leopard, but in our quest-for-the-best, data-manipulated world, the word “last” is in imminent danger of extinction.

© Simon Turner-Tree


Simon Turner-Tree is the “eleventh” man standing.

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