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The origin of ‘omicron’: How do you pronounce the new coronavirus variant, and more importantly, why?

Dec. 2, 2021 Updated Mon., May 30, 2022 at 2:49 a.m.

Not much is known about the mysterious omicron variant of the coronavirus that is cropping up around the world. The mystery extends even to the pronunciation of the word “omicron,” which is a letter in the Greek alphabet.

The founding of the language, breathing patterns and traditional teaching translations are among the reasons for the etymological confusion.

And with the first U.S. case of the new variant detected in California on Wednesday, the mystery of its name and pronunciation take on new significance.

In the Greek alphabet, there are two variations of the letter o: omicron (o) and omega (ω). Omicron is the shorter vowel pronunciation of the two, but time, wars and modern civilization eventually merged the pronunciations.

Amy Pistone, an assistant professor of Greek at Gonzaga University, called the evolution of omicron “distinctive.”

“In earlier sources, it is actually pronounced ‘Ooh’ (as in ‘moon’). But it’s not until Byzantine era, where distinction of the vowels collapse, where we see a distinction between tiny o – omicron – as a short-vowel o in the 5th century (A.D.),” Pistone said.

Though this is the 13th major variant of COVID-19 detected, the World Health Organization decided to skip “Nu” and “Xi,” the 13th and 14th letters of the Greek alphabet, because “Nu” and “new” are homophones, and, in the case of oral explanations, could evoke fear in those who don’t know the distinction. WHO officials decided also to skip Xi, pronounced “shee,” since it is a common Chinese surname and could confuse people .

Current English words that originate from classical languages can reflect both their original definition and connotations. For example, the word “quarantine” is of Italian origin, dating back to medieval administrations’ mandatory calls for sailors to isolate themselves for “quaranta giorni,” i.e. “40 days.” The order was put in place to mitigate the spread of the Black Death.

When the Romans invaded Britain in the first century A.D., Emperor Claudius imposed civilization and language, including the adoption of ancient Greek.

Salvador Bartera, an associate professor of Classics at Mississippi State University, works on languages through Latin literature, particularly historiography. He touched on the historic evolution of language in Britain that influences modern English today.

“Once the Romans left, then the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, staying for  hundreds of  years or so,” Bartera said. “In 1066, William the Conqueror came to Britain when the Romans began speaking French, and French is very close to Latin, so that’s where we get … Middle English from. They were these continuous waves of Latin influx, and that’s why about two-thirds of English words derive from Latin.”

Bartera also noted that medical terms exemplify the distinct connection of modern medicine and early Western advancements in medicine. The same way that English is commonly referred to as the universal business language, scholars such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton wrote their academic findings in Latin.

This also means “omicron” will be pronounced differently for English speakers around the world. Greek and Latin require certain syllable pauses and stops that aren’t adapted in all English-speaking regions, in the same way American accents differ depending on the region.

Teaching is also another culprit in the pronunciation debate. The British pronounce omicron as “o-muh-cron,” whereas Americans pronounce the omicron as “ah-muh-cron.”

Pistone referred to the pronunciation wars as more than a split on accents.

“The main difference is between how British people and American people tend to say it, and if you were an American taught by a British Greek professor or a Brit taught by an American professor, you’ll adopt their pronunciation,” Pistone said. “Where in America, we put the stress on the first syllable in the U.S. mostly.”

She continued: “The pronunciations we use are artificial,” Pistone said. “It’s one that is just easier for English speakers to pronounce … but the way we translate it from Greek is a pretty artificial pronunciation anyway.

“If you were studying ancient Greek in modern Greece, you would use modern Greek pronunciations. Across the Greek world and across time, we can see vowel shifts. In a way, you can see how they spell things and see how these letters were making a particular sound at a particular time. You start to see these sounds shifting.”

The University of Washington’s Virology lab is now on “close watch for omicron.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the first U.S. patient spent time in South Africa. The patient was fully vaccinated when contracting the virus and experienced mild symptoms.

Officials in Washington say it’s only a matter of time before the new variant is detected here.

“We haven’t picked (the omicron variant) up in samples from the last couple of weeks,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, an instructor of laboratory medicine at UW Medicine. “I think it’s a matter of time, given how connected the world is and given how much travel has been occurring over the last few weeks and months.”

WHO officials have labeled the omicron variant as more contagious than the delta variant, but it is unclear if the newly found variant has more dangerous complications.

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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