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Why Omicron?

December 21, 2021 pm31 3:18 pm

Not “why are we faced with such a contagious variant?” – though that is an excellent question. Rather, why is this variant named “omicron”?

The easy answer is that omicron was the next letter in the Greek alphabet. That’s not correct, although there is a good idea there.

The variants are being labeled with Greek letter names, alphabetically. Alpha, beta, gamma, delta – ouch delta! Epsilon, zeta, eta, theta – (“yay!” say all the math teachers – “theta!” We name angles “theta” all the time. θ.) Iota, kappa, lambda, mu – remember how scary was mu was going to be?

And then we skipped two letters.

Nu. It was going to sound like “new” and confuse people. If we are talking about the “new variant” it is whatever is new at the time, but the “nu variant” would only be new for a short while. No to nu.

Xi. Hard to pronounce? Not a problem for the World Health Organization. Same spelling as the Chinese president’s name? Might be an issue. Probably the big issue. But the WHO just said that Xi was a common surname. Good enough. There was reason to skip Xi. And Nu.

Which brings us to omicron, which is the next letter in the Greek alphabet. End of story.

End of story? Not quite.

Omicron. That’s a mouthful. Three syllables. Why is the name so long and awkward? What sound does the letter make?

Think about it. The only letter in English with a multi-syllable name is W, which is, in all honesty, a pretty weird name. Most letters sound like their sound. Why not call W “wee” or “woo”? Or if we are going to go after the shape, whey not “double V”? That shape is definitely not two Us. But I’ll take W as a clear indication that a letter with a long name probably has a story attached.

That’s Omicron.

Omicron is really two words put together. O. Like a good name for a letter. And micron. Greek for small. Like microscope. Here it is in Greek: Όμικρον. Little O. So cute. And cuddly. And transmissible.

But if there is a little O, what is that in contrast to? Well, Greek also has a big O. Omega. O – mega. Like mega-mart. Here it is in Greek: Ωμέγα. But since omega is at the end of the Greek alphabet, we use it to denote the very last. Alpha is first, omega is last. The alpha and the omega. The beginning and the end. But that ignores the Little O / Big O thing. We don’t talk about that so much in English. But with omicron making headlines…

Little O. Big O. Question answered, right? Right. But that raises another question. Why? Why two different Os? They make, as far as I know, roughly the same sound. So this will take some digging.

Sounds change over time. When Shakespeare wrote he rhymed “move” and “love.” They no longer rhyme. When Puritans landed in Boston and New Haven, the Boston Puritans did not say “pahk” while the New Haven Puritans said “park” – there weren’t even cars. The sounds shifted. When the Beatles sang “Komm gib mir deine Hand” they were singing in German, of course. Different language, different words. But four of those five words are identifiable to an English speaker – but with the sounds shifted “Come give me your hand.” (not sure how we got “your” and they got “deine”) Sounds change in language. Sounds change as dialects develop. Sounds change between languages.

So what happens when different sounds become the same?

In the Latin spoken in most places there were distinct B and V sounds. But, people who learned Latin in parts the Iberian Peninsula merged the bilabial voiced stop and the bilabial voiced fricative (what we think of as B and V) into a single sound, giving rise to the letters B and V being pronounced the same in Spanish – even today. Now, the spelling never got reformed. So some knowledge of etymology might help speakers of the language spell, but memorization plays a huge role. And how, when a Spanish speakers mentions B and V, are they distinguished, if they sound like B and B?  The speaker might say b grande y b chiquita, big B and little B (meaning B and V, respectively).

In Russian something a bit similar happened. They lost the letter yat: ѣ. Yat originally was a vowel a bit different sounding than a short E, but over time in most accents and dialects the sounds converged. There were exceptions. In Moscow differences were reported, and even today there are places that linguists say preserve distinctions between words that used to be spelled with ѣ from words that used to be spelled with e. But by 1800, in most regions, without a sound difference, spelling became frightfully difficult. The provisional government abolished the letter in 1917 – and old habits die hard – the Bolsheviks had to ban it again. Today it only appears in monarchist or intentionally olde fashioned documents. But the loss of spelling distinction means loss of some connections to the past – as this student, for example, found etymologies vexing without the support of the original spellings. Roots are obscured. Knowledge has been lost.

In English. Ooph. When English spelling became standardized everyone was spelling sort of alike, but not, with lots of regional accents supplying spellings to different words. Sounds have separated and merged, separately in different places. I guess I have heard about how useless the C is, because it makes either the same sound as a K or an S. But think about accent, chimera, matriarch… I think C is tied in with both pronunciations and history in a way that makes it hard to extricate. Plus, if we moved English to spellings that match how WE say things WE would have to decide which WE meant – as English words are pronounced in different ways in different places.

So back to Greek. The Greek situation is more akin to that in modern Spanish. Greek has two modern letters that make an o sound, omicron and omega, little O and big O, Ό and Ω. Small letters o and ω. But once upon a time, the omicron made more of an “oh” sound and the omega made more of an “aw” sound. It was only later, when the sounds merged, that the “little O” and “big O” names became necessary.

And that is why we have the letter omicron.

The Greek alphabet has 24 letters.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2021 am31 9:26 am 9:26 am

    I always assumed Zeta would be the last letter and have been anxiously looking forward to it which will be 2000 times more contagious than omicron by being able to leap tall buildings.

    • December 24, 2021 am31 10:37 am 10:37 am

      The Romans started pronouncing Z strangely – like the French R – and no longer needed it – so they dropped it. A few hundred years later they decided they did need it – to write Greek words with a Z, so they put it back – at the end. That’s where English gets Z at the end from.

      But for everyone with a descendant of the Phoenician alphabet who didn’t take their alphabet from Latin with the reintroduced Z, the Z comes much earlier – somewhere between D and K.

      This includes Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, also Greek and all the Cyrillic alphabets, including modern Russian.

  2. December 25, 2021 am31 11:38 am 11:38 am

    Eventually around 2030 we will be recycling back as variants keep coming. Double Delta?


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