The 15th letter of the Greek alphabet had been a fairly innocuous entity for 2,500 years. But in just two weeks, it became notorious. Omicron moved beyond classical philosophy texts, beyond the realm of the 13 million or so people who speak Greek as natives, and exploded into use in urgent scientific reports, breaking news headlines and social media feeds around the world.
The Greek alphabet is a millennia-spanning marvel that didn’t necessarily need this boost in visibility. But the world is now getting a lesson in Greek, one unpleasant coronavirus variant at a time. The same letters used by Plato and Aristotle are turning into symbols of a global plague, and knowing the difference between delta and omicron is essential to understanding whether we might be emerging from the pandemic or still mired in it.
“This is not how I wanted to learn the Greek alphabet,” Isla McKetta, 43, from Seattle, wrote on Twitter after learning of omicron – a letter that she, like many Americans, hadn’t heard of until it was named as a “variant of concern.”
While many people were familiar with a handful of Greek alphabet letters, it is the emergence of omicron that has launched a crash course. According to Google data, online searches for the phrase “Greek alphabet” have boomed. Even some scientists say they are being forced to brush up.
“Most of us know certain critical letters – alpha, beta, gamma,” said Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “And then it starts to get hairy.”
For Greeks, there is a degree of bemusement as they watch their language fall into others’ hands. (In one news conference, President Joe Biden mistakenly added an “n” into the variant’s name, calling it “Ohm-nee-kron.”) But many Greeks say they see their language as a universal heritage, and they take pride in how aspects of it are widely used in science, math and technology.
Well before the pandemic, there were alpha particles and gamma rays. Sigma, as any Microsoft Excel user knows, is the symbol for sum. And perhaps no letter is more famous than pi.
“For us, this kind of stuff raises no eyebrows,” said one Greek senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
The official mentioned Facebook’s new corporate name, Meta – commonly used in English to mean “self-referential,” but which in Greek means “after” or “beyond.”
“It’s not like they asked us,” the official said with a laugh. “The use of Greek words is rather well-established.”
For many Americans, until the pandemic, the chief association with Greek came through university fraternity and sorority groups. In response to McKetta’s tweet, which was retweeted some 14,000 times, many people made jokes about Greek campus life or said they were transported back to rituals associated with initiation.
“Never did anything I learned as a drunken sorority girl prepare me more for the current world climate as learning the Greek alphabet,” one person wrote.
The Greek letters gained their pandemic role only a few months ago – and in a sense, they came to the rescue. Before June, scientists were using their own established naming systems for variants – B.1.1.7, for instance. And in the public, new variants were being colloquially described by the countries in which they were first detected, a practice the World Health Organization called “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”
So the WHO convened a series of meetings. One idea involved basing variant names on species of birds. Another called for using the names of Greek gods. Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of East Anglia, who was involved in several of the meetings, said any system should give the variants “gravitas” and “familiarity.” He suggested drawing names from characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Almost every idea had a problem. There were concerns about trademarks and lawsuits. There were concerns about the behavior of the ancient gods – their immorality and violence. Finally, with the feeling that it was “all falling apart,” Pallen said, one WHO senior official, Frank Konings, decided to “just use the Greek letters.”
“There was a lot of pressure on the WHO to come up with a solution,” Pallen said.
But even the Greek system, it turns out, has some pitfalls.
When a new, highly mutated variant was discovered in late November, the next letter in line, alphabetically, was nu. But the WHO decided a homophone for “new” would be too confusing. Officials rejected “the new nu variant.”
The next letter in the Greek alphabet is Xi, which happens to be spelled identically to the surname of the Chinese leader – an unwelcome echo of when President Donald Trump insisted on referring to the “China virus.” The WHO skipped that one, too.
“Xi was not used, because it is a common surname,” the WHO said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Looking ahead, scientists see one other problem. There are countless variants – and probably more significant ones on the way – but the Greek alphabet has just 24 letters, and only nine remain on the list.
Once-dominant alpha and now-dominant delta obviously deserved their names, scientists say. Same with beta, first identified in South Africa in late 2020, which was more likely than its predecessor to cause severe disease. But other variants – eta, theta, iota – were quickly steamrolled and are now irrelevant.
“I think we used up too much of the Greek alphabet too quickly,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
For those who use the Roman alphabet, the Greek alphabet consists of a few letters that are readily identifiable: A (alpha), B (beta) and K (kappa), for instance, all look and sound as they would in English, Spanish or French.
But the Greek alphabet also has letters that look familiar but sound different – P makes an R sound. Then there are letters that are unrecognizable, such as psi – shaped like a little pitchfork.
Maria Kaliambou, a Greek language teacher at Yale University, said it takes her classes about three months to nail the pronunciations and internalize the sounds. Greek is rarely offered at American high schools, so her courses start for true beginners. But she said people can learn quickly.
In one of her classes for intermediate students, a 21-year-old junior, Kincaid MacDonald, used the pandemic as inspiration for an end-of-the-semester creative writing assignment: “Greek Letters vs. WHO.”
He described the letters as little characters, with arms and legs, who lived in the basement of an eccentric Greek professor. And they wanted to sue for defamation.
Last Thursday, at a conference table, MacDonald read the story aloud in Greek to the small class – drawing occasional bursts of laughter. The tale took on several twists and turns, eventually zagging away from the pandemic. But the story emphasized that the letters were fed up with being associated with sickness and death. They were harmless, and they wanted their reputations back.
In a subsequent email, MacDonald explained that his own feelings about the Greek letters hadn’t been darkened. “I’m fortunate to have learned the alphabet by rote several months before the pandemic began,” he said, “which, you might say, ‘immunized’ me against this poisoned association.”
“The number of times I’ve heard ‘delta’ or ‘omicron’ used to refer to a strain of COVID is far outweighed by the number of times we’ve used them in ordinary Greek study,” MacDonald wrote. “I do worry that people learning (or thinking of learning) Greek for the first time might lack this immunity.”
Alpha (Britain, Sept. 2020) – Variant of concern; fueled last winter’s surge in Europe and the United States on its way to becoming globally dominant; supplanted by delta
Beta (S. Africa, May 2020) – Variant of concern; drove South Africa’s second wave; outpaced by delta
Gamma (Brazil, Nov. 2020) – Variant of concern; drove a major wave in Brazil; eventually outpaced by delta
Delta (India, Oct. 2020) – Variant of concern; produced spring wave in India; dominant in Europe and the United States by summer; globally dominant by September
Epsilon (United States, March 2020) – Former variant of interest; first detected in California
Zeta (Brazil, April 2020) – Former variant of interest
Eta (Nigeria, Dec. 2020) – Former variant of interest
Theta (Philippines, Jan. 2021) – Former variant of interest
Iota (United States, Nov. 2020) – Former variant of interest, first detected in New York
Kappa (India, Oct. 2020) – Former variant of interest
Lambda (Peru, Dec. 2020) – Variant of interest; dominant in Peru before delta
Mu (Colombia, Jan. 2021) – Variant of interest; showed signs of vaccine resistance but lost out to delta
Omicron (South Africa, Nov. 2021) – Variant of concern; dominant in South Africa and outpacing delta in Europe