A new strain of COVID-19 recently detected in southern Africa as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization is also no doubt causing concern among linguists as the variant has been itself pronounced in a varying number of ways.
First, to address the reason you clicked this headline: omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet that is variant’s name, can be pronounced with either an “Oh” sound — “ō” for you logophiles — or an “Ah” sound, denoted as an “ä” in Merriam-Webster's entry on the word. Both are acceptable, but here at News 5, we'll be following how our peers at ABC News pronounce it - with an "Oh."
Just don’t follow President Biden’s lead, as he called it “omnicron” throughout his news briefing Monday, and we’re fighting a deadly virus, not modifiable robots from the planet Cybertron.
But don’t be too hard on Joe, he wasn’t the only one.
Of course, you can also go by the variant’s original name, B.1.1.529 – but don’t expect that in many news headlines. The Associated Press’s Style Guide, to which our organization adheres, states that “omicron,” like other variants, should be written in lower-case, and referring to it by its country of origin should be avoided, though it is acceptable to include a reference to where it was first seen. So news writers shouldn’t be saying “the South Africa variant,” but can state: “the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa.”
Who decided to name variants after letters of the Greek alphabet, anyway? That would be the WHO and the group of scientists with their Virus Evolution Working Group, who recommended the use of the Greek letters as it would be “easier and more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences.”
While omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, there have only been 13 named variants of the COVID-19 to date. That is because the WHO skipped the Greek letters “Nu” and “Xi.”
In a statement, the organization said they skipped “Xi” because it is a common last name (that happens to belong to the leader of China, Xi Jinping). The WHO skipped “Nu” because they thought it would be too easily confused with “New.” And for an organization that already lends itself to Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, the less confusion the better.
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