When the World Health Organisation decided on a name for the new strain of COVID-19, they apparently followed protocol and skipped the next letter in the Greek alphabet, nu, because it sounded too close to “new” which might have confused people. They they skipped the subsequent letter, xi, because it would look like they’d named the variant after the President of China, which would also be confusing should symptoms of the Xi Variant not manifest themselves as serious curtailments to civil liberties and atrocities committed against the Uyghurs.
The WHO are like that, you see. They worry about how the names of variants might play to the wider public.
It meant they settled on omicron, which, with hindsight, was probably the scariest choice this side of calling it “the Andromeda Strain” (after Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel and 1971 film). Omicron certainly sounds… well… a bit ominous, but it should also be stressed that so little is known about the new variant that jumping to conclusions is entirely unwarranted. The government is sensible to be cautious, but omicron might not live up to the name. It could yet be a less potent but more virulent strain, which would push the serious pandemic towards a far less serious endemic.
It leaves us, for the moment, with an unfortunate name that does sound like a villain from Star Trek; “in this week’s episode Omicron, the sentient gas cloud, devours Kirk’s toupee collection but in the process learns an important lesson about humanity…” The result is that we’re experiencing a kind of nominative determinism, which normally occurs when somebody is drawn to work that suits their name: Sandra Rockslide becomes a geologist or George Bellyflop wins Olympic Gold from the springboard. Omicron, therefore, becomes the Fear Variant. There really was no other option.
Naming things poorly can always work the other way as we also saw this past week. According to the rules of the Met Office, the latest storm to hit the UK was called Storm Arwen. We have this every year, of course, when the names of the year’s storms are worked out long before the season arrives. Storm Arwen rolled in, therefore, sounding like a woodland elf fringed with flowers. Perhaps too few of us took it seriously until the youngest child of Elrond and Celebrían started to topple trees and bring down chimney pots. Yet, to make the more serious point: more people appear to have died from the innocuous-sounding storm than the variant with the very scary name.
The SAGE Committee, meanwhile, is the “Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies”, but if the name implies the sagely advice they give, it also sounds too herbal and lacks the impact their expertise should demand. Is there any wonder why the government appear to be ignoring them with predictable regularity? Fathers give “sagely advice” to young sons going out into the world but it is routinely ignored and often results in long courses of antibiotics.
On the other hand, the COBRA Committee sounds like it’s ready to strike with deadly accuracy. “The Prime Minister today chaired the COBRA committee” sounds as serious as events get, except it only references a meeting in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms. That suits politicians in that it makes their work sound as exciting as handling a venomous snake. The work of the experts, meanwhile, sounds as exciting as a Simon and Garfunkel Greatest Hits album.
The problem might well be the way that so many of these names and acronyms are arbitrary and random and have no bearing on the things they represent. The World Health Organization is concisely and appropriately named but the WHO suffer the problem of all bad acronyms in that we can legitimately ask: who are WHO? WWE and WWF, meanwhile, are so close you’d think they’re linked, except one represents some of the planet’s least sentient creatures and the other is the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Not that the abstract nature of words and acronyms is ever going to be solved so long as there are people around willing to mangle any word to pursue the wildest claims of the conspiracy fringe. “Omicron” has been widely mocked for being an anagram of “moronic” but also out there are claims that it also means “no Crimbo” (they get the missing “b” from it also being the “B.1.1.529” variant). It would almost be a persuasive argument except “no Crimbo” could also be written “Crimbo on” which this year should hopefully be the case. We could all do with a break…