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The Holy Grail Gives Alpha its Omega

When our society’s seekers of knowledge, conquest or material objects talk about their ultimate goals, they often appeal to crusading and questing metaphors that can take on religious overtones. Some place themselves in the role of old Sir Galahad, speaking of their object as “the Holy Grail of” something or other, even when that object is less than holy. There’s the Holy Grail of Irish Drinking Songs, the Holy Grail of Metabolic Disease (brown adipose tissue), the Holy Grail of Physics (you big boson, you), and the Holy Grail of Human Resources, among thousands of other possibilities.

On the other hand, there are those who aren’t just seeking an end to their search, but a beginning as well. For these searchers, the religious reference of the Book of Revelation to the “Alpha and Omega of” something emphasizes a grand (or grandiose) desire to uncover eternal truth. Those who seek the Alpha and Omega of Retinal Disease, the Alpha and Omega of Deadly Heresies, or the Alpha and Omega of Hedge Fund Added Value appear to be true believers in some faith — faith in a unified theory of mitochondria, faith in the second coming of a zombie god, or faith in the almighty idea of the dollar.

As the graph below shows, the idea of some object as the “alpha and omega of” a field is coincidentally more eternal than the search for the “holy grail of” a desired object. The y-axis of the graph marks how often the phrases “alpha and omega of” and “holy grail of” appear as a share of all phrases in the millions of English-language books scanned in for inclusion in the Google Books database. The x-axis in the graph charts these shares looking back in publishing history, from 1850 to 2008, the last year for which data is available.

Appearance of Holy Grail and Alpha and Omega in Books, 1850-2008

The the idea of searches for the “holy grail of” some subject or field is a recent development, surging to significant popularity in published books only within the last generation or so. The idea of some truth or knowledge as an eternal “alpha and omega of” a subject is fittingly more durable but unfittingly eroding compared to its reliquary counterpart.

5 comments to The Holy Grail Gives Alpha its Omega

  • I attribute this linguistic shift to the release of Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

    • What’s great about the ngrams database is you can check this. Go ahead — search for “holy grail,” “holy grail of” (a term not likely to be associated with the movie), and “monty python.” The first two have similar patterns — but the pattern is different for the last.

  • Dave

    Indeed, the red line appears to graph the life of a “buzzword,” and Monty Python was much talked about.

  • Bill

    Dang, and here I thought I’d be the first to make the Monty Python connection. But I can still add this twist: “Holy Grail” goes ballistic on the graph during the approximate interval 1984-1989. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released in 1975. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in 1989. My vote is they both had impacts. Either that, or we’re just confusing causes and effects.

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