I love language, but let me join the chorus of those who’ve said this isn’t a fun way to learn the Greek alphabet.

Yet another variant of the coronavirus is upon us, this one called Omicron in keeping with the World Health Organization’s naming system.

It was May of this year when the WHO announced they’d be using Greek letters to label key variants of concern and variants of interest. While these labels don’t replace scientific names (which are still used in research), the WHO wanted more generic terms to simplify public communications.

Because scientific names can be hard to pronounce and remember, people had started to refer to variants by the places where they were detected. That, stated the WHO, “is stigmatizing and discriminatory”. So we ended up with the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, all the way through the Lambda and Mu variants.

The WHO came up with the naming system to avoid causing confusion, or offending “any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” Both might have happened if the WHO hadn’t just made an exception to their own guidelines.

For the first time in labelling variants with Greek letters, the WHO skipped some. By the sequence of the alphabet, the new variant was due to be called Nu. However, WHO bypassed that, as well as next-in-line Xi.

In a statement to the AP, the WHO said: “Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’, and Xi was not used because it is a common last name.” That’s how Omicron became that latest alarming term.

We’re now at number 15 of 24 letters. As an aside, Greek has two versions of the letter “O”. Omicron, the 15th letter, means “little O” and Omega, the 24th letter, means “great O”. Think micron and mega. While we’re absorbing the latest on the Omicron variant, it’s hard not to think ahead about what Pi, Rho, Sigma, Tau, etc. might bring. Mega bad news.

Incidentally, there was quite a PR scramble for a certain global company in the electrical energy industry called OMICRON. That name goes back 40 years for them. Not a great time to have it. So OMICRON quickly acknowledged that on their website, with a note saying the variant name is “an unfortunate coincidence” and “there is nothing we can do about this hopefully short-lived connotation.” They concluded by telling everyone to stay healthy and safe.

COVID-related lingo has dominated the discourse for 21 months now, from social distancing to super spreader, lockdown to quarantine, and flattening the curve to PPE. New terms have entered the lexicon, like covidiot or Zoom fatigue

Now, as 2021 comes to a close, COVID is responsible three times over for the Word of the Year. These year-end honours from various dictionaries are like the Oscars for word nerds (count me in).

Merriam-Webster picked “vaccine” (after selecting “pandemic” last year). The choice was based on lookup data, as well as year-over-year increases and spikes in searches. On the online dictionary site, searches for “vaccine” were up 601% over 2020, and 1,048% compared to 2019.

As a sign of the times, “vaccine” became Word of the Year not just because of its fight against COVID-19, but also because it has created so many political fights.

“This is a word that has two parallel but intersecting stories: one is a medical story, and one is a political or cultural story,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large.

Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary picked “vax” as their Word of the Year. As a shorthand, “vax” was relatively rare in their English language corpus data, says Oxford. Now, the usage has skyrocketed, and has spawned derivatives like “vax sites”, “getting vaxxed”, “anti-vax”, “fully vaxxed”, “double vaxxed”, and more.

Here’s hoping that the entire planet stays vaxxed and vigilant enough so that we don’t have to run through the entire Greek alphabet. Likely, we will. So here’s really hoping we have enough of yet another 2021 Word of the Year, this one from the Cambridge Dictionary: “perseverance”.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming every week (or as close as I can get) about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

December 1, 2021

Share This