A new covid-19 variant called “omicron” entered the global lexicon over the weekend. The variant spooked the markets after its existence was reported on Nov. 26 and prompted governments to ban travel from a number of countries in southern Africa, where it was first detected.
Much remains unknown about omicron, including whether current covid-19 vaccines can prevent against severe cases of the disease. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who discovered the variant, said on Nov. 28 that the strain so far seems to be producing “very, very mild” effects in patients. But there’s also been some confusion about a far less consequential aspect of the new variant: its pronunciation.
A British viewer wrote to The Telegraph to complain that a BBC News announcer had been mispronouncing the Greek letter, putting an emphasis on the first syllable rather than the second. Rather than “OH-mi-cron,” the reader wrote, it should be pronounced “oh-MY-cron.” BBC editor Jess Brammar apologized, responding that she did not go to Greek school. It turns out, though, that either pronunciation is probably okay, but one is closer to modern 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.