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Greek Letter Ranks

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When Greek letters such as 'alpha' or 'beta' are used as titles, not in a literary or naturalist sense.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
Argon2 on Jan 24th 2017 at 8:30:02 AM
Last Edited By:
Arivne on Feb 18th 2018 at 3:37:59 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

Many fictional organizations rank their members with Greek letters. Such ranking systems usually progress alphabetically- 'alpha' refers to a leader note  or uber-badass, 'beta' refers to their Number Two, and so on.

If the letters denote power level instead of someone's rank in a group, that's Random Power Ranking (although the two tropes often overlap because Asskicking Equals Authority.) Compare Gratuitous Greek, which is about how works (or items/technology within a work) involving futuristic science often have a Greek letter in their title.


Examples

Anime and Manga

  • In DARLING in the FRANXX, 'pilots' are referred to by number, and some have letters such as iota attached to their number.
  • In Soul Eater, Chrona's various attacks are named with the pattern "Screech [Greek Letter]", from least powerful to most powerful. In this case it emphasizes the cold and clinical conditions they were raised under and the fact that their abilities are experimental; other characters use more traditional attack names.

Fanfiction

  • In lost seasons, a Kung Fu Panda fic, a pack's alpha is its strategist and the beta (there's only one beta in any pack) is essentially an armsmaster/field commander. The narrator's pack allied with Shen because they thought he could replace their deceased alpha; without one, a pack disintegrates.
  • In the Persona 5/Torg crossover fic The Dance of Dominance, demon groups go by martial strength; the strongest is alpha, the second strongest is beta, and so on. Demons use these terms even if the group they're in is mostly human.

Film - Animated

  • In Alpha and Omega, the former are a wolf pack's best fighters and hunters, and 'omega' is a catchall term for everyone else. It's an Omega's role to defuse tension within and between packs, so the alphas don't fight unnecessarily. The two types aren't allowed to mate, and omegas don't have much official power, yet every pack onscreen has some.
  • In Up, Muntz names his dogs after Greek letters according to their rank. Dug, the Minion with an F in Evil, has an Odd Name Out, which suggests he's so low on the hierarchy that there were no letters left to assign him. When Dug defeats Alpha, the other dogs make him the new Alpha.

Film - Live-Action

  • In Edge of Tomorrow, the alien Mimics have three biological castes. The basic foot-soldiers are just called Mimics. The Alphas are the commanders, and are also capable of sending their memories into the past should they die. And the Omega is the supreme leader of the entire Hive Mind, and possesses a time-reset ability similar to the Alphas.

Literature

  • In Zoe Chant's Paranormal Romance novels, these terms can refer to either rank or a were's nature, which they are instinctively hardwired to follow. Alphas and betas both fight, but only alphas are stubborn enough to risk themselves in dominance fights over pack note  leadership; betas are more pragmatic. (It's noted that this isn't a bad thing.) There can only be two alphas in a group, so most alpha shifters are loners.
  • In Brave New World, one of the Trope Codifiers, people are all genetically engineered and designed to fit into castes ranging from Alpha (the best and brightest) to Epsilon (simple-minded workers for the simplest jobs). Here the trope overlaps with Random Power Ranking, because the ranking is based on intellectual power.
  • In the Alliance/Union series, the clones created by the Union are created and trained in categories designated alpha through epsilon (in an obvious shout-out to Brave New World). The alphas are the smartest clones- the ones most likely to graduate to full citizenship- while the epsilons are slow and stupid and assigned to all the most boring jobs. This only applies to those clones created by the Union government to address its horrible manpower shortage; clones made by private citizens and raised as normal children are outside of the alpha-epsilon system and are always considered full citizens.
  • In Patricia Briggs's Alpha and Omega novels, the letters are both titles and ranks (because of Personality Powers). Alphas command. Omegas are peacemakers who must be protected from fights.
  • Zigzagged in Breaking Dawn. A (werewolf) pack leader is an 'alpha', but everyone else is titled 'second' or 'third' as befits their place in the hierarchy.

Live-Action TV

  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "One Little Ship", Jem'Hadar are referred to by the quadrant in which they were created. Alphas come from the Alpha Quadrant, for example. Each type has traits meant to make them better warriors against opponents from governments in the corresponding quadrants. (The system is not alphabetical; Gammas were created before Alphas.)
  • In Blake's 7 the Federation's social classes are "alphas", "betas", "gammas", and "epsilons".

Tabletop Games

  • Warhammer 40K:
    • The psyker rating scale goes all the way from Alpha Plus (can snap a Titan in half with their mind) to Omega Minus blanks (invisible to daemons and cause immense suffering to psykers just by being present due to their having no Warp presence). Baseline humans are Rho or Pi.
    • Particularly tough versions of individual Tyranid strains are referred to as Alphas.

Video Games

  • Some Heartless raid bosses in Kingdom Hearts χ have Palette Swapped variants more powerful than the original. These variants were labelled "Subspecies" in the original game and "Omega" in the English translation.
  • When Drunk on the Dark Side, the Soulcalibur V character Pyrrha's name changes to "Pyrrha Omega".
  • The Metroid aliens metamorphose through 'stages', not unlike butterflies. From weakest to strongest, the stages are: larval, alpha, gamma, zeta, omega, Queen.

Feedback: 31 replies

Jan 24th 2017 at 8:51:06 AM

I didn't add the Alpha And Omega novellas as an example because in them Greek letters refer to specific types of power, not ranks. Similarly, the 'redpill' movements uses these terms as slang, not titles, so they aren't an example.

Jan 25th 2017 at 5:51:39 AM

Compare Gratuitous Greek, which is about how works (or items/technology within a work) involving futuristic science will have a Greek letter in their title.

Jan 25th 2017 at 1:39:10 PM

  • The phrase "I am the alpha and the omega" is often associated with God.
  • Warhammer 40 K:
    • The psyker rating scale goes all the way from Alpha Plus (can snap a Titan in half with their mind) to Omega Minus blanks (invisible to daemons and cause immense suffering to psykers just by being present due to their having no Warp presence, normal humans feel Irrational Hatred towards blanks). Baseline humans are Rho or Pi.
    • Particularly tough versions of individual Tyranid strains are referred to as Alphas.

Jan 25th 2017 at 7:59:11 PM

In packs, the term "alpha" comes from a now thoroughly discredited theory of wolf behavior. As far as I can tell, the beta and gammas, which were never part of that theory, derive more from Aldous Huxley's classic dystopia, Brave New World (which was a major influence on Nineteen Eighty Four). But really, the wolf-pack-style alphas are a bit of a different category from the BNW-style alphas/betas/gammas.

So, I'm torn. Two different-but-related tropes, or one with two divergent sources? I can live with the latter, but it seems like it would need a deeper explanation than we have so far.

Oh, and, obvious examples:

  • In Brave New World, one of the Trope Codifiers, people are all genetically engineered and designed to fit into the categories of Alpha (the best and brightest) to Epsilon (simple-minded workers for the simplest jobs).
  • In the Alliance Union series, the clones created by the Union are created and trained in categories designated alpha through epsilon in an obvious shout-out to Brave New World. The alphas are the smartest clones—the ones most likely to graduate to full citizenship—while the epsilons are slow and stupid and assigned to all the most boring jobs. This only applies to clones created by the Union government to address it's horrible manpower shortage; clones made by private citizens and raised as normal children are outside of the alpha-epsilon system and are always considered full citizens.

Jan 25th 2017 at 9:04:48 PM

Chabal 2, I've added your Warhammer example. I don't feel that the God example counts as a title; the words are just being used as a fancy way of saying 'beginning and end'. They have no meaning to a group in-story other than as letters.

Jan 25th 2017 at 9:10:34 PM

Xtifr, I mentioned in a page note that the terminology has been debunked. Also, I can add your suggested examples as 'a rare [non-typical genre] example of the trope'. Since the titles (in BNW and AU) refer to both caste titles *and* set power level, I will state that in those cases, the trope is combined with Random Power Ranking. How do you feel about that?

Jan 26th 2017 at 2:35:58 AM

^ Ok, except that I don't think Random Power Ranking really applies to either example. I mean, Epsilons are usually stronger than Alphas in both. :)

But if you're mainly making this about packs, then you probably want a more specific name. Especially since it just occurred to me that this sounds like a trope about titles of works! (In other words, it sounds like Samuel R Delany's novel The Ballad of Beta-2 should be an example, just because it has "Beta" in its title.)

Jan 26th 2017 at 9:13:32 PM

Alright, I've made all the improvements I know how to make. Hats please?

Jan 26th 2017 at 11:03:53 PM

Oh, you want more examples first. This may be technically launchable, but launching a trope with this few entries almost guarantees it'll languish away and nobody will notice it for ages. This is common enough you should really try to collect more examples first. I think I might have one for you, but I need to track down the work...

Jan 27th 2017 at 11:01:40 AM

In Up, Muntz names his dogs after Greek letters according to rank. Dug, the Minion With An F In Evil, is the Odd Name Out, suggesting that he's so low on the hierarchy that there were no letters left to assign him. When Dug defeats Alpha, the other dogs make him the new Alpha.

Feb 21st 2017 at 6:04:18 PM

Comic Books

  • [1]: Xavier's scale of mutants/powered individuals went
    • Alpha: Extremely powerful with no drawbacks to their powers: Emma Frost as an example.
    • Beta: Somewhat powerful but no match for an alpha.
    • Omega: Beyond extremely powerful. Potentially world-ending powerful under the right/wrong circumstances. Storm (she started as an Alpha but became Omega level when she became able to affect the weather globally and on other planets) Magneto, Legion, Jean Grey (Varies By The Writer whether it counts for her normally or whether it only counts when she is All Phoenixed Up).

The Alpha and Omega novels about the werewolves are titles and ranks. They serve the same purpose in the werewolf pack as in the wolf pack. Alpha commands. Omega is peacemaker and must be protected from fights.

Feb 23rd 2017 at 1:28:44 PM

The fact that this used to be a terminology applied to wolves before it got discredited should be mentioned in the Description.

Feb 23rd 2017 at 1:56:09 PM

In the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode "One Little Ship" the terms "Alpha" and "Gamma" refer to Jem'Hadar that are created in those respective quadrants (most known species are in the Alpha Quadrant and the Dominion is from the Gamma Quadrant, Gammas were created before Alphas). Each variety was created with traits meant to make them better warriors against opponents from governments in the corresponding quadrants.

Apr 22nd 2017 at 12:01:19 AM

The TV example needs to be indented.

  • Kingdom Hearts X's Heartless raid bosses tend to have at least two variations. The normal version and a much more powerful Palette Swap labeled as "Subspecies". When Unchained X got localized, the terminology got changed from "Subspecies" to "Ω", Omega.

Apr 22nd 2017 at 1:50:20 AM

In Blakes Seven, the oppressive Federation defines its citizens by social class as "alphas", "betas", "gammas", and "epsilons", in what is probably a Shout Out to Brave New World.

Apr 22nd 2017 at 6:38:27 AM

Real Life:

  • The "sociosexual hierarchy" classification used by the pick-up artist community (described e.g. here) divides men into various groups depending on their sexual desirability to women, from the successful "Alphas" down to the feeble "Omegas".

Apr 22nd 2017 at 5:46:17 AM

Okay is there a way for a Unicode character to show up in the draft without breaking?

Apr 23rd 2017 at 1:44:50 AM

Korodzik, the example you suggest seems to be a case of subjective/slang ranks rather than an official designation given by a group. The pick-up artist community is not a club or biological demographic- think about the difference between, say, Americans who enjoy hiking and members of the American Hiking Society. Someone could say they're an 'alpha', but it wouldn't be a set, provable fact that nobody can dispute. The community couldn't enforce their title, even though members of the community might agree that the person is an 'alpha'. I could say I'm the rightful king of England, but no genealogist or member of the royal family would agree with me. Any right I might have is purely theoretical.

That's why I'm not going to add the example.

Apr 23rd 2017 at 2:39:23 AM

Upon reflection, I'm removing the X-Men example because it's solely about biology, not ranks.

Apr 23rd 2017 at 3:58:10 AM

Morningstar 1337, apparently so. For now, I'm replacing the letter with the word for it.

Sep 28th 2017 at 8:33:17 AM

In the Metroid series does this to the titular creatures. You have the iconic larval stage, and then it metamorphs into the Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, and Omega stages, before eventually becoming a Queen Metroid.

Sep 28th 2017 at 1:18:50 PM

It's worth noting in the description the two ways this typically plays out:

  • Alpha is the one in charge (the "top dog"), and other ranks count down from there. Often based on outdated interpretations of wolf pack hierarchy.
  • Rank and/or power level count up from Alpha, so Omega is not only The End but also the biggest and/or most dangerous.

Film:

  • In Edge Of Tomorrow, the alien Mimics come in three distinct castes. The basic foot-soldiers are just called Mimics. The Alphas are the commanders, and are also capable of sending their memories into the past in the event of their death. And the Omega is the supreme leader of the entire Hive Mind, and possesses a time-reset ability similar to the Alphas.

Oct 22nd 2017 at 10:26:52 AM

  • In Soul Eater, Chrona's various attacks are all named with the pattern "Screech [Greek Letter]" from least powerful to most powerful. In this case it's to emphasise the cold and clinical conditions they were raised under and the fact that all their abilities are experimental rather than the more traditional sounding named attacks other characters use.

Feb 18th 2018 at 2:11:18 AM

  • Examples section
    • Changed media section titles as per Media Categories.
    • Alphabetized media sections.
    • Deleted an empty media section.

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