The missing variant

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"WHO — You cannot be Xi-rious! The WHO’s decision to skip the Greek letter Xi in its ludicrous naming system shows exactly who controls it", by David Spencer, Taiwan News, Contributing Writer, 2021/11/28:


From AntC:

You might remember when this latest Covid mutation was first found in Southern Africa, it was going to be named Nu.

But it ended up being named Omicron. I had assumed that's because a couple of lesser-known variants had already been in the pipeline. But no (allegedly), Nu was skipped because it was too close to a homophone for 'New'.

Xi (pronounced 'Chi', or 'Ki' with long 'i'/'aye' in Brit English) was skipped because it was too close to a homograph for … you cannot be Xi-rious. (Gotta love the pun.)

The Taiwan News correspondent must have had a lot of fun writing that piece.

… or too close to a homophone for a certain "brand of personal lubricant"?

Checking the facts:

"WHO skipped two Greek alphabet letters in naming coronavirus variant", AP Fact Check (11/27/21):

CLAIM: The World Health Organization skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet, nu and xi, when naming omicron, a newly identified variant of the coronavirus.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: True. The agency said it did so to stop people confusing nu with “new” and to avoid “causing offense” because Xi is a common last name.

THE FACTS: The WHO on Friday gave the name “omicron” to a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The agency also deemed it a “variant of concern.”

Omicron was first reported to the U.N. health agency by scientists in South Africa and has been identified in several other countries as well, The Associated Press has reported.


In 2013 the Fuxi Institution compiled a ranking of the 400 most common surnames in China….  According to the study, the following surnames are not among the 400 most common surnames… Xí (习/習)"


If those in charge of such matters keep skipping like this, they'll soon run out of Greek letters to name all the future variants.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. ardj said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 1:13 pm

    Again, they should have consulted me. Omicron is already taken as a variant name. Not only is it how I address our glorious leader here, but "omicron" is the variant of neo-liberalist economics that he espouses.

  2. Kenny Easwaran said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 2:07 pm

    The people who name hurricanes used to use Greek letters as the backup when they ran out of names on the main list (as they did in 2005 and 2020). However, last year they realized this wasn't a great idea, because Delta was a bad enough hurricane that it qualified for retiring its name, and they also got worried that Zeta, Eta, and Theta sounded too similar for names of hurricanes that might be targeting different locations at the same time (thus undoing the advantage of having names for them). The virus people thought that Greek letters had an advantage over geographic names (and they do) but they didn't think about the problems with using them (Delta was already problematic, given that it's the name of a major corporation, as well as a really bad hurricane from last year).

    Hopefully they come up with a better convention. "Covid" was a really great name in most of these regards (though I don't exactly know what this video connection cable company is planning now: but the Greek letters just weren't quite right.

    I imagine there will be difficulties with Upsilon/Epsilon confusion, Phi/Psi, and whatever happens when we run out of Greek letters, in addition to the ones they've already discovered.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 2:34 pm

    If only the CCP had embraced a different romanization system (and/or the outside world had ignored the CCP's preferences), the current dictator's name could be romanized as, e.g. Hsi Chin-p'ing, which would avoid the problem.

  4. David L said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 2:41 pm

    You don't have to be an apologist for the Chinese government to see that calling it the xi variant would cause all kinds of politically motivated nastiness from the Trumpistas and others. They've already had their hilarity with the Tchina virus and the kung flu. The xi variant would have brought out the Twitter mob in full force. They're already making hay out of the fact that's not called the xi variant; imagine what they would do if it were called that.

  5. Jake said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:00 pm

    Couple thoughts:

    1. 习/習 might not be among the top 400, but the similarly-romanized 席 and 奚 both are.

    2. Extremely disappointed in AntC for making the error: Xi is ξ, which is pronounced /ksai/ or /ksi/ or /zai/; they are thinking of chi / χ.

  6. languagehat said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

    Xi (pronounced 'Chi'

    Say what? The standard US pronunciation is (ZYE). Those of us who have studied Greek might show off by saying /ksi/. But who on earth would say "chi" (whatever that is intended to represent)?

  7. Rosie Redfield said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:33 pm

    The explanation I saw (claimed to be WHO-source) was that Xi is a very common surname in China, and that' it's general policy to avoid naming diseases after people or places.

  8. Mildred Bonk said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:38 pm

    Certain Greek letters are more popular than others in mathematical and scientific usage, for various reasons including distinctiveness, ease of writing, and ease of pronunciation. Lowercase xi is commonly referred to as "squiggle" and conflated with lowercase zeta. Capital Xi is the subject of a notorious story about awful math notation, in this comment's link: try writing the complex conjugate of capital Xi divided by capital Xi. Also see the previous comments on confusion between Xi and Chi. While it's probably not the only reason they skipped it, Xi's status as "one of those weird Greek letters that aren't used very often in science" probably didn't do it any favors.

  9. MN said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    @languagehat: Yeah, I assumed that was just confusion with chi. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than /ksai/ in English, though. (But it’s uncommon enough in math that maybe I’ve just never heard a non-classicist say it out loud at all…)

  10. Ed H said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 3:58 pm

    They corrected the confusion between Chi and Xi in the original article, since the time this blog post was written.

  11. Francois Lang said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 4:08 pm

    > Those of us who have studied Greek might show off by saying /ksi/.

    I've never pronounced this letter any other way, but then my undergraduate major was classics, and I did my thesis on Homer, which is full of ξs!

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 5:13 pm

    The WHO previously designated a Zeta variant of COVID without much concern about giving offense to Catherine Zeta-Jones or the late (presumbly) Oscar Zeta Acosta.

    As Greek letters go, Ξ/Xi seems to be one of the ones less commonly used in the names of U.S. college fraternities and sororities, but I think however the members of such groups (and/or others on a campus where such a group has a chapter) say it might be a good baseline for normal AmEng usage. I'm assuming /zai/, but can't say I specifically recall hearing it aloud in such a context.

    But now the question is perhaps whether some Theta Xi chapter out there can avoid getting into trouble by convincing nervous university administrators that a crackdown on those particular frat boys would give symbolic offense to the powers that be in Beijing, on whom the university has become reliant for funding.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 5:16 pm

    As of right now (although I expect it will be edited out in short order) the wikipedia article has some harshly critical words for the WHO's behavior in this situation. But the article also has some interesting historical instances of Chinese "emperors whose names contained common characters who would try to alleviate the burden of the populace in practicing name avoidance."

  14. Brett said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

    In physics, ξ is ksi, but Ξ is cascade.

  15. AntC said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 5:51 pm

    @Jake, @Hat, @MN yes mea culpa.

    Note to self: don't dash off emails to Victor late at night. I confused English 'Xi' with Greek Χ χ — which is more familiar to me in Chi-squares. (I studied Homer only in translation.)

  16. maidhc said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 6:37 pm

    Wikipedia: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is a non-profit honor society for scientists and engineers which was founded in 1886 at Cornell University by a junior faculty member and a handful of graduate students. Members elect others on the basis of their research achievements or potential.

    I always thought it was "zai", but I'm not sure I ever heard it pronounced outside of Greek class.

  17. Dara Connolly said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 7:24 pm

    If it were pronounced /ksai/ (one of the options suggested by Jake) it would be the クサイ株 kusai-kabu in Japanese which sounds like the "smelly variant".

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

    As a native <Br.E> speaker, I can honestly say I have never heard ξ pronounced as /z/anything — /ksaɪ/, /ksiː/, yes, but always initial /ks/, never initial /z/. /ksaɪ/ for mathematicians, physicists, etc., and /ksiː/ for classicists.

  19. AntC said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 7:32 pm

    (although I expect it will be edited out in short order)

    Yes, as predicted.

    As if Chinese script wasn't already an enormous feat of memory, now you have to avoid certain characters, or write them funny. Except of course you have to remember the 'historical' form so you can still read texts dating from before that particular emperor.

  20. AntC said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 7:41 pm

    I'm sure that for each Greek character, we could find a near-enough homophone/homograph to cause offence to someone in some language.

    Get your nominations in early for Pi, Rho, Tau. As Victor suggests, WHO had better be planning for what they do after Omega.

  21. Y said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 8:35 pm

    A mutant pronunciation already observed in the wild: "omnicron".

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 9:12 pm

    Philip T.: Do these fellow-Britons of yours pronounce "xylophone" or "Xenia" or "xenophobia" with an initial /ks/? That's how it works in Russian (ксилофо́н and Ксения and Ксенофо́бия), but initial /z/ in English for words of ultimate Greek derivation which begin with ξ in Greek seems a fairly regular-to-exceptionless pattern.

  23. Dan Milton said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 10:18 pm

    A friend of mine wrote that omicron is moronic. It should be noted that he posted this on a Scrabble site.

  24. astrange said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 3:24 am

    "Omicron" has the disadvantage of being too long and sounding SF-ish, but there is some early evidence that this strain is not that virulent (ie more of a cold than a death sentence), so we'll see.

    Rho will presumably be skipped to avoid confusing it with Ro Khanna.

  25. Jeremy said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 3:53 am

    I hope they don't skip the pie/pee variant. That one should be fun all around.

  26. John Rohsenow said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 4:34 am

    I guess there are no longer many around who are familiar with what Wikipedia describes as "Often called the most beloved and popular of college fraternity songs, "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi", written in 1911" also the title of a 1933 film. Google it for various performances on UTube.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    JWB — "xylophone" and "xenophobia" both with initial /z/. "Zenia" more frequently with initial /z/, but I have heard /ks/ from botanists. I think that ξ is an exception to your "fairly regular-to-exceptionless pattern" because it is so little used by hoi polloi.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 5:06 am

    … where "Zenia" should, of course, read "Xenia"

  29. AntC said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    Hehe Taiwan News isn't giving up without a fight. WHO explanation fails sniff test: Mu more common surname than Xi.

    "In fact, all the previous Greek letters before Omicron are documented surnames, defeating the WHO's entire premise of avoiding surnames with its variant names."

    And they give the IPA for both the Chinese surname Xi (習) and Greek letter Xi (Ξ ξ) — they're pronounced differently; no risk of confusion.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 8:36 am


    Xenia (/ˈziːniə/ ZEE-nee-ə) is a city in southwestern Ohio and the county seat of Greene County, Ohio, United States.[11] It is 15 miles (24 km) east of Dayton and is part of the Dayton Metropolitan Statistical Area, as well as the Miami Valley region. The name comes from the Greek word Xenia (ξενία), which means "hospitality".

    Official website of the town:

    Xenia, Ohio, USA, known as the “City of Hospitality,” named for the Greek word “Xenia” meaning hospitality, is a community rich in traditional values….

    I'm from northeastern Ohio (Stark County), and folks there pronounce it "ZEE-nya".

  31. Bloix said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 9:17 am

    The author of the Taiwan News article implies with no evidence, as if it's obvious, that Xi was out because of President Xi's name. Maybe. If so it's not a bad reason. We don't need a hook for another uncontrollable round of trolling about the CHI-NAH virus.

    PS- My father, who was an active member of Sigma Xi, pronounced it "sigh." But nowadays initial z seems to be more common.

    PPS- Dan Milton – the QANon-ers have latched on to the anagram as proof! proof! that the new variant is a hoax. There's no such thing as a coincidence anymore.

  32. Bloix said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 9:20 am

    PPPS – antC – "no risk of confusion"?!! People who want to be confused will have no difficulty in becoming confused.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    "WHO says not clear weather [sic] Omicron more transmissible, causes more severe disease" (Xinhua) 08:20, November 29, 2021

  34. Rodger C said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 10:14 am

    Who says indeed? Clear weather indeed!

  35. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 10:26 am

    Somebody who is from Dayton, right next to Xenia, also just told me that he pronounces it ZEE-nya.

  36. Peter Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 2:06 pm

    @Philip Taylor, my British mathematics teachers pronounced xi with a zed.

  37. A1987dM said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 2:19 pm

    So some people say /ksaɪ/ and some people say /zaɪ/ but no-one compromises on /gzaɪ/?

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 4:36 pm

    "my British mathematics teachers pronounced xi with a zed" — with which vowel, Peter ?

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 4:40 pm

    "no-one compromises on /gzaɪ/?" — some must, since the LPD attests to it : /saɪ/ /ksaɪ/, /zaɪ/, /ɡzaɪ/

  40. Steve Morrison said,

    November 30, 2021 @ 9:43 pm

    I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’ve always heard Xenia pronounced as ZEE-nya.

  41. John Swindle said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    So it's clear that it's ZEE-nya and not ZEEN-ya?

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 9:47 am

    I have (of course) no idea how Xenia-the-place-in-America is pronounced, but for me (and for John Wells) Xenia-the-plant has three syllables, not two : /ˈziːn i‿ə/ or /ˈksiːn i‿ə/ (the latter not recorded by JW).

  43. AntC said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 4:17 pm

    The U.S. late-night talk shows have now picked up the kerfuffle. Say here starting about 0:25

    They seem to be pronouncing 'Omicron' in bizarre ways (to my Brit ears). I say Oh-'micron as in small-Oh vs Oh-'mega.

    The hosts have a variety of pronunciations, but give about equal syllable weight like 'ohmygod' as one word. Even am I hearing (mildly) strongest stress on the last syllable(?)

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2021 @ 8:32 pm

    Well, as a fellow Briton, I pronounce it όμικρον (/ˈɒ mɪ krɒn/), following the example of my Greek betters — stress on the first syllable, short 'o' in both instances, short 'i' in the second syllable.

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2021 @ 11:30 am

    I recently saw an annoying news article purporting to tell readers the One Right Way to pronounce "omicron," when the reality seems to be per reference works that multiple co-existing pronunciations (at least as to the vowel in the first syllable) are extent – in AmEng both the LOT/PALM vowel and the GOAT vowel and possibly the THOUGHT vowel as well. A friend of mine was having a friendly disagreement with her husband (both holders of Ph.D.'s in STEM fields, FWIW) – she used GOAT in the first syllable and he used LOT/PALM, and I told her they were both right – although to be fair her husband said his claim was based on the usage of fraternity members at his college and as I noted above I think fraternity-member usage is pretty important data for American pronunciation of Greek letters.

    To add insult to injury, this aggravating news story about the supposed One Right Way to pronounce the word suggested that the second syllable had the FLEECE vowel, which does not seem consistent with the standard reference works, which attest both the KIT vowel and schwa. Not sure what vowel in that syllable AntC was hearing from the tv personalities, although I think of "ohmygod" when said run-together as generally having the second-syllable vowel reduced from PRICE to either KIT or schwa. My own pronunciation is (modulo the fact that my accent has ɑ where his has ɒ) that of Philip Taylor, but I do not assert that it is the One Right Way to do it.

  46. ktschwarz said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 5:46 am

    The OED's pronunciation editor is on the case! Just posted at the OED blog:
    On the pronunciation of Omicron

    On the British side, OED’s entry for omicron gives 4 pronunciations, 2 with the stress on the middle syllable (oh-MY-kron and oh-MY-kruhn) and 2 with the stress on the first syllable (OM-uh-kron and OM-uh-kruhn). On the US side, the stress falls only on the first syllable, with two possible initial vowel sounds (OM-uh-kron or OH-muh-kron).

    It is already clear that in British English usage, the oh-MY- pronunciation of omicron, with stress on the middle syllable, is out of favour when referring to the new Covid variant. British scientists, politicians, and journalists nearly all seem to be using the more globally popular pronunciation which stresses the first syllable, radiating out from the example of WHO spokespeople…

    And it goes on to discuss British/American pronunciation differences in upsilon and omega.

  47. AntC said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 6:05 am

    Omicron in Mandarin sounds like 'I exterminate CCP'

    "Wo mie gong?" (我滅共) — according to illustrator Germ Sir (細菌先生).

    Taiwan News still isn't letting this go.

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