The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, as one can read it on The Free Dictionary, says:

alpha and omega, noun:
1. The first and the last: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord" (Revelation 1:8).
2. The most important part.

It is a noun that resembles to the Italian, literally, "from A to Z", an expression used to say that a certain thing is complete. "The report is complete from A to Z" means that it doesn't lack anything, and probably it is the same in English.

After reading the above definition, in the light of what I said, I began wondering if the two expressions, "tha alpha and the omega" and "from A to Z", mean the same thing.

1) "I was forced to read the alpha and omega of 'The Principia Mathematica', written by Alfred North Whitehead"

2) "I was forced to read, from A to Z, 'The Principia Mathematica', written by Alfred North Whitehead"

Can anybody explain the difference in meaning between 1) and 2)?

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    Alpha and omega is not at all the same thing as from A to Z. – tchrist Jul 23 '13 at 14:05
  • 1
    That’s right: you cannot say that. – tchrist Jul 23 '13 at 14:09
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    I believe an English expression that means the same as Alpha/Omega is, "Terri is the end-all and be-all of that team." – Kristina Lopez Jul 23 '13 at 14:29
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    @Carlo_R. Alpha and omega has eschatological connotations that A to Z lacks. – tchrist Jul 23 '13 at 15:16
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    @Kristina Lopez: That end all and be all is definitely a somewhat non-standard American variant. We English people (read, Brits) overwhelmingly classify ourselves as the be all and end all in such matters. – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '13 at 4:01

The answer to your edited question is that neither version is normal, because your assumption that 'probably it is the same in English' is unfounded.

Alpha and omega, derived from the Biblical reference, can indeed mean 'the important part': "Set theory is the alpha and omega of the symbolic logic in Whitehead's Principia Mathematica'. 'From A to Z' means 'all of it'; "I know Whitehead's symbolic logic from A to Z". But if, as in your example, you mean 'starting at the first page and finishing at the last', the phrase is "I read Whitehead's Principia Mathematica from beginning to end".

Incidentally, the book is not "The Principia Mathematica", it is "Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica." There is no article: since the words are in Latin they are italicised; and the authors must be named, to distinguish their book from Newton's predecessor with the same title.

  • Tim, what a erudite answer! +1, surely. – user19148 Jul 23 '13 at 18:10
  • Tim, or should it be "what erudite an answer" :) – user19148 Jul 23 '13 at 19:10
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    @Carlo_R.: actually either 'What an erudite answer' or 'How erudite an answer' (and whether it's true or not doesn't change the grammar). – TimLymington Jul 23 '13 at 19:22

They more or less mean the same thing they just have a different "ring" to it. In the Bible, God was referring to something slightly different.

In the Greek alphabet "alpha" is the first letter and "omega" is the last. In this case, he's saying he's the beginning, the end and everything in-between.

  • They may mean the same thing only in terms of representing the first and last letter of the two alphabets, but the expressions are not interchangeable in their use. – Kristina Lopez Jul 23 '13 at 17:51
  • @Kirstina Lopez: Someone edited my answer... – Jacobm001 Jul 23 '13 at 17:52
  • I reviewed the edit and think they went too far - and totally changed the meaning. You can roll it back and tweak it again if you want. Your original answer was more accurate in my mind. :-) – Kristina Lopez Jul 23 '13 at 17:59
  • @Kristina Lopex: I thought so too, but didn't know I could roll it back. It was the first time I've ever had a major edit on any of these sites. Thanks for the direction. – Jacobm001 Jul 23 '13 at 18:02
  • @TimLymington: Apparently I just need to quit messing with things. Thank you. – Jacobm001 Jul 23 '13 at 18:04

In context, Alpha and Omega doesn't mean "the important parts". It's not talking about alphabet, either. It's talking about the beginning, [middle] and the end. The idea is that the speaker has always been around from the beginning of time to the end of time.

8 The Lord God says, `I am the First and the Last. I am the beginning and the ending. I live now. I always have lived, and I will come again.
(Worldwide English)

The emphasis is more on the level of always rather than range.

Something nearly equivalent:

When I started reading, I was reading before anyone, I'm still reading, and will read when people stop reading.

It's the difference between I've done everything X and I've never stopped doing X.

Certainly, there is more to it than just this post, and [hermeneutics.se] might be just the place to gather more insight.

  • In a Christian context, certainly. But in a normal English context, the meaning has expanded to 'the most important part', as the dictionary definition says. – TimLymington Aug 10 '14 at 19:36
  • @TimLymington Of course, context will define the meaning. I doubt "the important parts" was intended in the source text. – SrJoven Aug 10 '14 at 20:52

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