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How we got to ‘Omicron,’ a previously obscure, D-list letter

Omicron sounds like a drug in heavy commercial rotation on cable news. Or a Transformer villain.

Adobe, Globe Staff

Even pre-pandemic, it was rarely good news when a letter from the Greek alphabet was trending. It meant yet another fraternity had gone bad. Or, until a recent policy change, that a hurricane season was so busy the World Meteorological Organization had run out of people names.

But these days, well, when a Greek letter is trotted out, it’s time to start hoarding something.

Last month — when Americans were basking in the Thanksgiving holiday glow — the ancient alphabet struck again.

Omicron, an obscure, D-list letter, had grabbed the world stage and had become the dreaded “variant of concern.”

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But even as scientists spoke ominously of mutations and spike proteins, markets shuddered, and borders slammed shut, one group was experiencing a tiny moment in the spotlight: classical studies scholars.

“We’re in such an esoteric field I don’t think [the attention] is a negative,” said Joel Christensen, a classical studies professor and department chairman at Brandeis University. “It’s kind of like Trump. All news coverage is good coverage.”

He recalled, for example, that when the Brad Pitt movie “Troy” came out, in 2004, even though it wasn’t critically acclaimed — “Homer’s estate should sue,” Roger Ebert said — student interest in courses on Greek mythology and history enjoyed a surge at NYU, where Christensen was then teaching.

It’s probably safe to assume that classicists are as upset as the general population about the emergence of this latest threat.

But they, at least, can distract themselves with pronunciation debates. “I am NOT a technical ancient linguist,” the British celebrity historian Mary Beard tweeted. “But I do find it a bit odd that the BBC news is saying omicron with the stress on the first syllable.” Later in the Twitter thread, she revealed that she prefers the stress on the middle syllable — the “mic” part.

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And of course they have their alphabet humor (but probably no one should quit their day job).

“I made a joke early on that we didn’t want to get to ‘Theta,’” Christensen said, sounding not unproud.

Theta — the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet — is short for Thanatos, in Greek mythology the personification of death. “I might have tweeted about it,” the professor allowed.

Hahahahaha.

Then he started riffing about upcoming alphabet-related naming challenges.

The next letter up, he noted, is Pi. “Do we want to go after geometry?” he asked, quickly moving on to the letter Rho, which would be tricky because “some people will want to trill it,” and as for Sigma, it takes so many written forms that it, too, could be a challenge.

“There’s madness all the way down,” he said cheerfully.

For people not following the lesser dramas of the World Health Organization, it might come as a surprise to learn that the decision to identify the variants with Greek letters was not a simple administrative matter, but in fact decided upon after “wide consultation” and a review of “many potential naming systems,” according to a May 2021 announcement.

“WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

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Experts who are part of existing naming systems ... national naming authorities … Who knew?

WHO turned to the Greek alphabet to make the names easy to say and remember, and to get away from geographic stigma and discrimination.

But of course, nothing is simple. Considering that the most recent named variant before Omicron was Mu, the letter Nu should have been next, followed by Xi, and then Omicron.

But there was no Nu. Because it sounds like “new,” naming experts feared we’d end up in some crazy “Who’s On First? Type” situation:

What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

“That’s what I’m asking — what’s the new one called?”

“Nu.”

Using the letter Xi would probably have landed the WHO squarely in the fraught situation it was trying to avoid by using Greek letters in the first place. Not only is it a common last name, it’s the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.

So Omicron it was. But Omicron feels sketchy. How come no one had ever heard of it before? Maybe it’s one of those Clinton-Kamala Harris-Nancy Pelosi-Anthony Fauci-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Lame Stream Media hoaxes.

The meme machine has been cranking overtime, likening Omicron to an evil Transformer villain (sample Tweet: “He will do whatever is necessary to further the Decepticon’s conquest of the Universe, even if it costs him personal harm.”)

The name sounds like a drug in heavy advertisement rotation on cable news: “Ask your doctor about Omicron (warning: Omicron may cause death and despair).” Or maybe a minor cryptocurrency (oh, wait, it is one, and of course its value briefly soared).

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From an educational perspective, Omicron is giving people a skewed idea of the Greek alphabet. As far as many people know, Omicron comes right after the last variant to get a lot of attention, which was Delta.

“Someone said this is the worst way to teach the public the Greek alphabet,” said David Goldstein, an associate professor of linguistics, Indo-European studies, and classics at UCLA.

But at the rate things are going, this isn’t even a problem we’ll have for that much longer. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and we’ve already blown our way to number 15.

In June, the journal Nature urged WHO to get ahead of the name game and “consider alphabets from other languages” to have at the ready. “The WHO system’s authors will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution,” the journal intoned.

But alphabets are finite and this pandemic is endless. We need an ever-replenishing source of monikers. Disgraced public officials, maybe?


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.