I find the articles of New York Times’ columnist, Maureen Dowd, a treasure house of English expressions unfamiliar to non-native English learners. It’s stud with knotty expressions and new words to me. In her article titled Dystopia and Alpha (August 2), I stumbled on the word alpha in the beginning line

President Obama was on the way to Alpha when a plea came for him to be, well, more alpha.

The first Alpha is obviously the name of a town in Illinois, but what does the second alpha mean? Is it used as a noun, or adjective?

I checked the Cambridge Dictionary to find the meaning of alpha and simply found its definition as ‘the first letter of the Greek alphabet.’ Aside the same definition, Merriam-Webster provides the meanings as adjectives:
(1) closed in the structure of an organic molecule to a particular group of atom
(2) socially dominant, especially in a group of animals.

  • 3
    Thanks for trying to "save time and space", Yoichi, but it's actually better if each question has its own post. That way, people who are trying to answer the question don't have to answer both—they can only answer the one they are sure about. I've removed your second question—you can find it here if you want to it separately.
    – waiwai933
    Aug 21 '11 at 17:13
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    The "hesitancy" implied by "well" in the sentence indicates that it's not really a particularly good use of the word. The writer probably wouldn't have used it at all if the town "Alpha" hadn't already been mentioned. It's just a rather lame pun on alpha male Aug 21 '11 at 18:06

The plea is for him to be more dominant. Social animals tend to form hierarchic communities in which each individual has a social rank; the highest ranking individual or pair is referred to as the alpha individual, usually male, or pair. The alpha is typically physically or psychologically dominant. The concept is especially associated with wolves and other canids, though it now appears that the pack leader is generally just the breeder, the common parent, and not an ‘alpha wolf’ that won the position by fighting for it. See this Wikipedia article and some of the articles linked from it. This one may also be of some interest.

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    This is excellent on the behavioural background, but an extra note on usage (as per @FumbleFingers’ comment): this sense of alpha is used colloquially almost exclusively in the phrase alpha male, so appearing independently like this in a non-technical context, it is essentially acting as a back-formation from alpha male.
    – PLL
    Aug 21 '11 at 18:23
  • @PLL: Definitely not a back formation, because it’s the same adjective used with essentially the same meaning. Perhaps you mean that for most people it’s been abstracted or generalized from the collocation alpha male? That’s possible, but I’m a bit doubtful: the ‘bare alpha’ usage has been around long enough to have entered popular fiction, and it is applied to women, if not nearly so often as to men. Aug 21 '11 at 20:26
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    Exactly, yes — I meant that I think most people’s interpretation of it is generalising from the pop-science understanding of alpha male. So as you say, that wouldn’t literally be a back-formation — but it would be quacking very much like one. I can’t think of a good way to document this… but I’m pretty sure that @FumbleFingers and I aren’t the only people whose mental parsing of that sentence goes via alpha male.
    – PLL
    Aug 21 '11 at 21:13

Alpha is used in a number of contexts in the article by Maureen Dowd.

As previously answered, alpha is used:

  • As the name of the town: Alpha.

  • As the reference to "alpha's " - dominant members of a group.

Also, it has a third sense. Later in the article alpha is used again in this sentence "He was seen in the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Friday holding Brave New World. Maybe he was brushing up on dystopias and alphas."
In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World the people are divided up into classes known as the Alpha's, Beta's and Gamma's. The Alpha's are the rulers, and Beta's, Gamma's, Delta's, and Epsilon's are the lower classes, each with different status. Brave New World is a strict class society; no one can rise out of their class, or fall from it.


Alpha means to be the head of.

ie. the first thought of or the figurehead.


  • Leader of the pack

  • Head of the company

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