How “omicron” is pronounced in English and in Greek

The World Health Organization announced in May that it would start naming covid-19 variants after Greek letters to avoid stigmatizing geographical regions from which they originated. The health organization dubbed this most recent variant after the Greek vowel omicron, meaning “small o.” WHO officials opted to skip over two other Greek letters—Nu and Xi—citing concerns that the first sounds too much like “new,” while “Xi” is a common Chinese surname.

The letter, which is spelled as όμικρο, is pronounced as “ó-mee-kro” in Greek. But the Cambridge Dictionary offers two different English pronunciations of the letter, suggesting “oh-MY-cron” for British English, and “OH-mi-cron” for American English.

The naming of the new variant ignited a debate among classicists, explains poet and translator Alicia E. Stallings, about whether to go with the UK pronunciation or stick with the US version, which is closer to modern Greek.

Neither pronunciation is necessarily false, Armand d’Angour, a professor of classical languages at Oxford, told The Telegraph. He explained that word “micron” used to be pronounced with a long “i” in ancient Greek, but that is no longer the case. Anthony Kaldellis, the chair of Classics at Ohio State University, told Quartz in an email that emphasis should be put on the first syllable, “something like OH-me-cron.”

No matter how you pronounce the name of the new variant, there’s a good chance it could already be circulating around where you live. If you’re lucky enough to be in a region with ample access to the covid-19 vaccine, now may be a better time than ever to get one.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.