It’s extraordinary what fuss a little letter can cause.
The news in Britain in recent weeks has been full of references to the notorious Plan A of the Chancellor, George Osborne. He said last year that his scheme for improving the country’s finances was the only one needed. Last December, the Treasury insisted that “There is no Plan B”, which shows signs of becoming a sarcastic catchphrase. A hundred economists published an open letter in the Observer last Sunday in an attempt to change Osborne’s mind, arguing that “It is now clear that plan A isn’t working” and urging the government to adopt a plan B. This has been reinforced this week by similar calls from the Liberal Democrats, coalition partners in the government. Ed Balls, Osborne’s Labour opposition counterpart, dismisses all such alphabetical labels: “Call it Plan A-plus. Call it Plan B. Call it Plan C. I don’t care what they call it — Britain just needs a plan that works.”
Observers of a logical bent might wonder, if Mr Osborne only ever expects to have a Plan A, why he bothered to assign a letter to it. A British author had fun with this approach half a century ago:
“This is what I call ‘pattern A’.”
“And what is pattern B?” asked Ann Halsey.
“There won’t be any pattern B.”
“Then why bother with the A?”
“Preserve me from the obtuseness of women! I can call it pattern A because I want to, can’t I?”
“Of course, dear. But why do you want to?”
The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle, 1959.
To label alternatives with letters is now so fashionable as hardly to warrant much comment, even though to develop possibilities much beyond Plan C is either to suggest an over-controlling and anxious personality or strategies that contemplate extraordinary contingencies. Plan Z gets some attention, but usually as one so far down the list it can only be crackpottery. Even Plan B is more often a humorous comment on a Plan A that has proved impracticable (“we need a plan B”, “time for plan B”) than a serious potential alternative.
Legal documents have identified plans and drawings by letters for at least a couple of centuries. The origin of the figurative expression partly lies here, but more specifically in plans that illustrate alternative proposals for a development (“The scheme shown in Plan A for remodelling the house is more expensive than the alternative outlined in Plan B”).
The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for both Plan A and Plan B which imply that they originate in the US. However, its earliest citation for Plan B — a letter sent during the Civil War in 1863 — turns out to refer to a physical drawing or plan. I have found a British example, from the Report of the proceedings of the Church Congress held in Cambridge in November 1861, where it refers to one of two proposals for a scheme to modify church taxes. The first known example of Plan A is currently from an equally improbable source — the 1867 Report of the US Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition of that year.