Mind your language

The six ways to pronounce ‘Omicron’

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

‘There once was a curate of Kew, / Who kept a young cat in a pew,’ began my husband when the news bulletin on the wireless mentioned the omicron variant of coronavirus. The naming of the variant has caused much dissension. Old-fashioned speakers of English object to the BBC’s preference for the pronunciation ommi-cron, with the stress on the first syllable, and insist it should be oh-my-cron, with the stress on the second.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides six pronunciations, four in British English (the ones mentioned and two more that depend on whether the last vowel is indeterminate: -cruhn). American speakers of English seem not to entertain the possibility of pronouncing the middle syllable as -my-, though they are perfectly happy to do so in the word micron.

Omicron appears not to have been mentioned in English until 1631. It was not unfamiliar before then, but discussion of the letter was generally conducted in Latin. The earliest known reference comes in a strange passage from a book called The arraignement of the whole creature, at the barre of religion, reason, and experience by Stephen Jerome, a Puritan who twice had to flee to Ireland, first after being caught in flagrante with a woman parishioner, later after being accused of attempted rape by his maidservant.

Anyway, Jerome argues that the soul and heart of men (and women) is triangular (composed of understanding, will and memory) and cannot be filled up with all the spherical entities of nature, from an egg yolk to the very heavens, without leaving voids at the corners: ‘So many Omicrons, cannot fill one little Delta.’ The vacuity must ever hunger for God.

I’m not going to run through the Greek alphabet, but the letter we thought at first we were getting for this variant, nu (the equivalent of en), is in English pronounced like new, as though it included a y: nyu. (In Latin the Greek name for the letter was transliterated ny, pronounced nee, but that did not become established in English.) It’s parallel with the preceding letter, mu, as my husband insisted upon emphasising with the rest of the traditional limerick: ‘He taught it each week. / Alphabetical Greek, / But it never got further than mu.’

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