Omicron: The most mispronounced word of the year

Whether you say “O me” or “O my”, Omicron is infecting people worldwide. Does it matter all that much how you actually pronounce it? Shashi Tharoor dissects the various pronunciations of the word

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 16 Dec 2021, 1:23 PM

The growing global spread of the Omicron strain of the Covid-19 virus has epidemiologists everywhere debating its impact, transmissibility, and lethality. But linguists have a different concern: how do you pronounce the word? A body called the US Captioning Company has already declared it to be one of the Most Mispronounced Words of the year, and it’s only been around for a little over a month.

First, let’s get the obvious errors out of the way. The word is NOT “Omnicron”, as so many (including US President Joe Biden) call it, no doubt subconsciously confusing its first couple of syllables for those in “omnibus”. That first “n” isn’t there. Nor is it “Omicorn”, as a Minister mispronounced it in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. Corns invade your feet, not your lungs.

But even for those who spell it right —“Omicron” — there are different versions of how to say it. The BBC, the oracle of the spoken English language for many colonials, has been saying “OM-mee-cron”. But Greek expert and classicist Mary Beard disagrees, asserting that the correct pronunciation is ‘oh-my-cron’, with the emphasis on the second syllable. A pair of Oxford professors of classical languages, however, insist the Beeb got it right, since the Greeks themselves would say “mee” and not “my”.

The Cambridge Dictionary suggests a compromise: “oh-MY-cron” for British English, and “OH-mi-cron” for American English. The Greeks, not unreasonably, since it’s their language, point out that Omicron, which is spelled in Cyrillic script, is pronounced “ó-mee-kro” in modern Greek. The BBC’s news channel editor who had been hauled over the coals for the contested pronunciation joked, “Guilty as charged. I did not do Greek at school.”

The entire debate, it must be said, has been thrust upon us by the good intentions of the World Health Organization (WHO), which gets to name each variant of the Covid virus as it emerges onto an unsuspecting planet.

The WHO was right to choose the Greek alphabet to name the variants, since entire nations were being maligned otherwise, with people referring to the virus by the place it was first detected, and thereby stigmatising the people there — the “Chinese virus”, “UK variant”, “Indian variant” and so on, rather like the “Spanish flu” of 1918-20, which actually originated in China but which has wrongly been blamed on the Iberians ever since. Thus, the WHO wisely chose “alpha”, “beta”, “gamma”, “delta” and so on, as neutral terms with which to baptise each successive variant of the virus.

Omicron’s scientific name under the Pango system, the Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak group, is B.1.1.529. To the technically savvy, the term B.1.1.529 conveys scientific information about its lineage, but try getting ordinary folk to remember it! For all its pronunciation challenges, “Omicron” is a lot easier.

There are now five named “variants of concern” labelled by WHO — alpha, beta, gamma, delta and omicron — as well as two variants of interest, lambda and mu. To complicate matters there are six Greek letters used up for “variants under monitoring” (kappa, iota and eta) or “formerly monitored variants” (epsilon, zeta and theta).

As the 13th variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has received a Greek designation under WHO’s classification system, this particular variant of concern should have been, by turn, in the Greek alphabet, “nu”. This was rejected as too confusing since it would sound like “new” — imagine people calling it the “nu” variant and when the next one comes along, wondering if it is now the “old” nu variant? Next in order, then, was “Xi”. But given that that also happens to be the name of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, WHO, with understandable skittishness, took a deep breath and skipped Xi. It moved to the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet, Omicron. Pi, Rho and Sigma lie in wait for the next three variants.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Shakespeare famously opined. Whether you say “O me” or “O my”, Omicron is infecting people worldwide. Does it matter all that much how you actually pronounce it? For those who have enjoyed this column’s digressions into anagrams in the past, it’s worth noting that “omicron” can be rearranged to spell “moronic,” which may be a fair way of dismissing the entire debate!

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