Greek variants

This morning I heard a radio discussion about the ‘correct’ way to pronounce omicron; the Greek letter chosen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the name of the new COVID-19 variant (after skipping over nu and xi to avoid confusion). The radio presenters consulted several dictionaries to come up with several different pronunciations, although strangely they did not think to ask a Greek person for advice.

A more interesting aspect to me is the meaning of omicron. I have not studied Greek so had to look it up, to find that Ο (uppercase) and o (lowercase) are called o + micron (meaning ‘little o’), in contrast to Ω and ω, the two forms of omega from o + mega (‘large o’). The two forms were needed after the Phoenician script was adopted for use by the Greeks, and omega was added to be the last letter of their alphabet (yes, from alpha + beta), which we still use for maths and linguistics – and now varieties of coronavirus.

When I visited Greece just before the pandemic the everyday use of symbols I usually associate with science gave me a feeling of slight disjuncture; even the graffiti could look like a psychedelic maths equation. The inscription in one of my favourite photos taken in Athens starts with omicron. To date I have not worked out its meaning, so I do hope it is appropriate for public dissemination:

Athens, 2019

From the possibly profane to an unquestionably sacred example from a thousand years earlier: I loved this mosaic portrait in the monastery of Hosios Loukos (Venerable Lukas), a hermit and miracle-worker whose name started with omicron (the ‘h’ was not included):

Hosios Loukas Monastery, Mt. Helikos, 2019

And from centuries again before that, one of the earliest examples of omicron is clearly inscribed on this circa 740 BC wine jug (oinochoe) which I saw in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (Although it would not have been called omicron at that stage, before omega was added to the alphabet). Imagine the competition of ‘some festivity unknown to us’ in the museum’s description, leading up to the presentation of this prize jug for ‘the dancer who will now perform more gracefully than all the others’:

Dipylon Oinochoe, National Archeological Museum of Athens, 2019

Back in the 21st century, we anxiously wait to find out the full impact of the ‘omicron variant.’ There are nine remaining letters of the Greek alphabet, and although they must have other things to worry about I wonder if the WHO is planning what to do if (or when) we get past omega?

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