There was the following passage in New York Time’s (May 17) article describing the scene of Sandy Bem, a Cornell psychology professor getting diagnosis of whether she has the sign of Alzheimer’s or not by a neuropsychologist. She chose euthanasia to confront the progressive decay of her self-identity due to Alzheimer’s in the end:

“He (doctor) read her a list of words and had her recall as many as she could. He gave her two numbers and two letters and asked her to rearrange them in a particular order: low letter, high letter, low number, high number.” - The New York Times

I know lower case letters and upper case letters, but I’ve never heard of ‘low letter’ and ‘high letter.’

I searched the meanings of ‘low letter’ and ‘high letter’ on Google, but found no source telling the definition. What do they mean?

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    I read that article too and thought that was an odd description. – Val Jun 4 '15 at 14:28
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    It's simply unclear. A is a high letter when speaking of school grades, but a low letter when speaking of numeric order. Unlike numbers, letters are not vertically arrayed and therefore don't have a natural Up for metaphoric use. It's just an example of bad writing (or possibly bad science, if the article was using the same phrasing as the doctor). – John Lawler Jun 4 '15 at 15:06
  • Yoichi, is there a common ordering given to hiragana? (so that in dictionaries it is easy to know when one word comes before another word?) – Mitch Jun 4 '15 at 19:37
  • @Mitch. Yes. We have an order of basic 51 letters (and sounds) plus 20 voiced sounds, all of wich which are laid down in each five-letters (and syllablls) group starting from vowel group, あいうえお (pronounced and spelt as a, i, u, e, o in Roman ji) to letters representing vowel and consonant compound sounds, かきくけこ (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko), さしすせそ(sa, shi, su, se, so), and so on. So you can cnsult Japanese language dictionaries in the order of 50 letters that starts from あいうえお. – Yoichi Oishi Jun 4 '15 at 20:24
  • Cont.Voiced sounds が、ぎ、ぐ、げ、ご (ga, gi, gu, ge, go) are indicated by adding ’’ onto the shoulder of clear sounds like かきくけこ. Is it too complicated? – Yoichi Oishi Jun 4 '15 at 20:24

A low letter would be toward the beginning of the alphabet (a, b, c) and a high letter would be toward the end (x, y, z). So by this measure a is less than b, e is less than o, and y is less than z.

It is worth noting that, in computing, the characters of the alphabet are assigned numerical values that sort from low to high, corresponding to each letter's rank within the alphabet (upper- and lower-case letters follow the same ordering, but are located at different ranges within the continuum, and "special" characters fall outside these ranges altogether).

  • Thanks Robusto-san for your immediate reply. You say a low letter, high letter 'would be.' Are they very common phrases? – Yoichi Oishi Jun 4 '15 at 11:51
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    No, Oishi-san, they are certainly not as common as "low number/high number" would be, and yet they are immediately understood by the typical native speaker. It is worth noting that in computing the alphabet characters are assigned numerical values that sort from low to high, corresponding with each letter's rank within the alphabet. – Robusto Jun 4 '15 at 11:59
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    Context could affect this, though. If you talk about academic grades for a few minutes, then "A" seems like a high letter and "F" seems like a low letter. I believe there is no commonly understood meaning of the phrase "high letter", but nevertheless in most situations people will split more unevenly than 50/50 when they guess what it's intended to mean :-) – Steve Jessop Jun 4 '15 at 13:17
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    @Steve: Sure, but not in this particular case. "He asked her to arrange them in a particular order: low letter, high letter, low number, high number"; this means there is a direct correspondence such as the one I suggest. – Robusto Jun 4 '15 at 13:32
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    @Steve Speaking personally, I'd be hard-pressed to call it a high letter. A may be a high grade, but I'd still call it a low letter. – Schism Jun 4 '15 at 21:26

Given the analogy to numbers, I would guess it means in terms of position in the alphabet.

So given t and k, the high letter would be t and the low letter would be k.

This is the first time I have come across the phrase.

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    In the part of Brooklyn, NY, where streets are organized by numbers (E. 1st, 2nd, 3rd street...) and letters (Avenue J, K, L...), it's not uncommon to refer to high letters and low letters, where high/low are used the way you posited. "She lives on E. 15th street, around the higher letters" might be used for someone who lives on E. 15th Street and Avenue T. – dj18 Jun 4 '15 at 14:26
  • @dj18 so are you saying that this is test for people in Brooklyn? – Mitch Jun 4 '15 at 19:38
  • @Mitch Who knows, maybe it was written by someone from Brooklyn... I just found it interesting that most people posting here haven't heard of the phrase, as it's easily understood where I come from. – dj18 Jun 4 '15 at 20:46
  • @dj18 I was sort of joking. The only tie you'd ever hear a phrase like that is in that particular testing situation (but it is a common task in such neuro-psych exams). – Mitch Jun 4 '15 at 21:29
  • @dj18 I think you should put your comment in an answer. That seems to me the most likely source of the phrasing. I'm a programmer and I deal with ascii encoding all the time but I don't use that phrasing and I don't think I've ever heard of it. But a Cornell professor and a doctor at Rochester might well be familiar with an NYC idiom. – msouth Jun 4 '15 at 23:32

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