On the pronunciation of Omicron

On the pronunciation of Omicron

When a word like omicron spikes in use, my first thought as an OED editor is to check that we are giving all the right pronunciations, and to keep a close eye on how any changes and controversies play out.  OED gives written transcriptions and audio for British and US English, and gives multiple variant pronunciations for words commonly pronounced in more than one way.

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).

So, we have pronunciation controversies over the vowel sounds and the stress placement, we’ve got some transatlantic tension, the Greek connection to lend a bit of ancient mystery, the fact that the word itself sounds like a science fiction villain … all of which has proved irresistible to language commentators everywhere (e.g. in The New York Times and on Sky News Australia).

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 like this one. In due course, lexicographers will reflect this change. Perhaps both stress patterns will persist when it comes to the Greek alphabet sense, but first-syllable-only will prevail with specific reference to the Covid strain, or perhaps the oh-MY- version will fade from use entirely.

Rhyming the i in omicron with high is characteristic of traditional anglicizations of Greek and Latin in British English; something similar goes on further into the Greek aphabet with upsilon, which in British English can be up-SIGH-lon as well as UP-sil-on, whereas US English favours only the latter option. Omega, on the other hand, goes the other way: British English has OH-muh-guh as well as oh-MEE-guh, oh-MEG-uh and oh-MAY-guh; US English avoids the variant with stress on the first syllable. However, few letters of the Greek alphabet do have one single agreed-upon pronunciation though. If the WHO had gone for nu, we would perhaps now be debating noo vs nyoo vs nee, or if xi,  ksigh vs ksee vs zigh. (A WHO spokesman said they’d been avoided because nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’, and xi is a common name.)

Appeals like this one have been made to scholars of classics to help unravel the one true way to pronounce the first vowel in omicron (oh- versus o-) by invoking ancient Greek pronunciation. This yielded fascinating and disparate responses, but the fact remains that in modern English, more than one pronunciation is in use. Relative similarity to the language of origin doesn’t actually privilege one variant over the others, or mean that all but the most similar should be disapproved of, or disappear.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.