Alphas and betas

Saying someone is alpha or beta in Dutch refers to how scientifically-minded they are. In English, if it says anything at all, it’s reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which the alphas are the intellectuals and the betas are the skilled workers.

In Dutch, it’s a classification from the education system, with subjects such as languages, literature and history being alpha, whereas maths, physics, IT, chemistry and so forth are beta. (Sometimes extended to put behavioural and other “soft” sciences into a gamma class too). It means nothing in English and so you have to use other short phrases instead.

  • hard sciences, soft sciences, social sciences
  • “I’m not scientifically-minded”
  • “a very logical mindset”
  • “Oh, I’m useless with numbers, I’m afraid…”

I don’t know if it’s purely Dutch, I’m afraid, but I am at any rate not familiar with this terminology in other languages.

Prevalence: low. Rarely turns up in writing outside résumés and HRM contexts.
Frequency: moderate. If you know what it means, it’s a very convenient shorthand to put in your CV, so people do (I took beta subjects at high school).
Native: no. Utterly incomprehensible.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “Alphas and betas

  1. Yes, Brave New World is was my first thought! “Beta” definitely sounding second rate (“Betamax”), or nowadays associated the “beta phase” in product development.

    Dutch still has a bit bit of a thing for neoclassical imports mostly unknown in English, such as the prompous-sounding naming convention where Henk or Paul is Henricus or Paulus, the museum/musea thing (in English these are quickly vanishing), and commonly used oddities like qua, via via and per se.

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    1. Regarding those neoclassical imports, the Germanic languages all have a bit of a penchant for medical Latin too where we’d be anglicizing the terms.

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