Omicron: A Big Deal About Small ‘O’

Awash, as we are, in discussion of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, I am, like everyone else, struck by the menacing uncertainty about its potential impact, including scattered economic worries and new speculation about (good grief!) a fourth vaccine dose. But as a linguist, I of course find the word itself serendipitous. “AH-mih-kron,” most of us say, or maybe “OH-mih-kron,” with many of us at least initially unaware of how it’s spelled and hearing only the sound of it.

Having spent so much of this year wringing our hands about the Delta variant, and because the word “delta” is relatively common, the advent of Omicron may be the first time many of us have taken time to notice that as we name Covid-19 variants, we’re running through the Greek alphabet, with some skips — there seems to be no shortage of new variants but there was no Nu variant. And even those who know that omicron is a Greek letter may never have unpacked the original meaning, which is “small O,” as in a “micro” O.

Contrast it with omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. At one time, at least, the two letters distinguished between the long and short “O” sounds. Omega’s name means “big O” as in “mega” O, although the way we pronounce it, we don’t hear the “mega” part as related to the prefix we use in words like megawatt or megabyte. In the same way, when we say “Omicron,” the last thing we’re thinking about is the prefix “micro” we use in microscope or microphone.

Over time, words’ pronunciations get battered around in millions of mouths and change. Words get shorter, they get longer, they smush up, their sounds change places. Meanwhile, their meanings extend to other things. “Audition” used to refer only to hearing. Then it came to refer to hearing someone try out for a play by reciting lines. After a while it referred to assessing applicants for a performance in general — now, you can audition to be a mime.

What I love is that these evolutions are normal. Each word is just the current rendition of something always in flux. “Darn!” someone says. But English speakers just two centuries ago wouldn’t have recognized it as a real word. It started with people exclaiming, “By the eternal God!” That, like many frequently used expressions, shortened: to “By the eternal!” Then, just as some people voiced “learn” as “larn,” many said, “By the ‘tarnal,” and then just “tarnal” as a stand-alone adjective. Mid-19th-century cartoons and commentary are replete with it.

One said “tarnal” in the same situations in which you might also at the time have said “Damnation!” Thus, people started exclaiming “Tarnation!” And since there was also “damn,” it felt natural to figure there was both “tarnation” and “tarn” or, sounding even more like “damn,” “darn,” emerging from a veritable buffet of changes.

These progressions, particularly the shortenings, can be especially awesome. I’m reading a novel in which one character, a maid, often says “yes’m” to the woman she works for. The “’m” began as two whole words, “mea domina,” which meant “my lady” or “my mistress” in Latin. That shortened to the French “madame,” which was passed on to English and shortened further to “ma’am,” and then the mere hiccup “’m” in “yes’m.”

This kind of thing is all over the place in just about anything anyone says anywhere on Earth. It’s why I’m not surprised that “brother,” a straightforward term for a sibling that might have stayed the same forever, has now come to mean “Oh, come on!” Not the bluntly exasperated “Oh, brother!” which is now rather antique, but something more layered, the laconic “bruh,” which expresses the ways in which life can saddle us with a lot. Someone says, “My mother wants me to tile her bathroom.” His friend shakes his head and grumbles, “Bruh …”

To me, these things are all examples of the inevitably approximate fit between words and expressions and what they refer to. To wit, it’s odd when words’ pronunciations and meanings don’t change, not when they do.

There are cases where a word holds on to the same meaning forever: As the New York University linguist Gregory Guy told Nautilus, “lox” has sounded the same way, and referred to salmon, for thousands of years. But even with a word as quotidian as lox (with no disrespect intended to salmon, smoked or otherwise), you can bet that sooner rather than later, the passage of time will mash it with pestles and refract it through prisms to the point that it is all but beyond recognition.

In “The Departed,” Jack Nicholson’s mobster asks Matt Damon’s corrupt state trooper, “Who’s the lead detective?” and greets the answer with, “Good. He’s a lox,” with the meaning of, roughly, “dud.” On the first season of “Hot in Cleveland,” Wendie Malick’s character complains about the Juliet in a school production of “Romeo and Juliet,” saying: “She’s a lox. When she dies at the end, no one can tell, because she’s been so lifeless all along.”

And so it goes. “Omicron” is my favorite example lately, but the new year will surely bring many more.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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