Omicron: Where does the name variant covid-19 come from? The Greek letter’s relation to ‘eye’, its merger with ‘omega’, and why it’s not STEM-friendly

alpha, beta, gamma, delta … ever since the World Health Organization determined in May 2021 that its nomenclature for strains important in the Sars-CoV-2 variant classification will adopt Greek-letter names (as opposed to the original names, Like the “Wuhan virus” or the “South African version”, a practice criticized for contributing to xenophobia and racism), we have all become a little more fluent in the Greek alphabet.

An ancestor of the alphabet you are reading now and of all modern European alphabets, which developed in Greece around 1000BC, the Greek writing system was based on the closely related Phoenician script used for Western Semitic languages.

The Phoenician script is an abjad – the word is derived from the pronunciation of the first letters of the Arabic alphabet – a writing system in which each symbol stands for a consonant, and the appropriate vowel is easily guessed by the reader.

In the adoption of the Phoenician script for Greek, modifications were made, including reassigning the five Phoenician letters to denote vowel sounds. Alpha, I epsilon, I Yota, O omicron and u upsilon – It became the oldest known writing script with symbols representing vowels as well as consonants.

Phoenician script.  Photo: D'Agostini via Getty Images

Phoenician script. Photo: D’Agostini via Getty Images

The word “alphabet” entered English through Middle French. Letter/French Alphabet, and post-classical Latin Alphabet, eventually Ancient Greek α . From Alpha + βῆτα Beta, the first two Greek letters were taken as full names (as “ABC” refers to the English alphabet). Omicron comes from the Phoenician letter oh ayin, whose name is derived from Proto-Semitic *Kayan – meaning “eye” – the letter shape of a circle or oval, clearly representing an eye, is ultimately suggested to be derived from Egyptian r hieroglyphs

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