Why is it So Difficult to Say Omicron?

The New York Post criticized Joe Biden and his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, for both mispronouncing the new variant as “Omnicron” rather than “Omicron”. Biden’s usual detractors seized on the mispronunciation as evidence of some sort of cognitive decline, but the president is far from alone...

Let's face it, very few of us actually speak Greek. If we did, we would know that omicron is the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet and the word literally means "little O" (o mikron) as opposed to "great O" (ō mega). As a result, for English speakers, linguists say our mispronounciation is to be expected. We don’t often have cause to introduce entirely novel words to our common vernacular as adults, especially ones from unfamiliar languages, and especially ones that sound instinctively like they ought to be pronounced differently.


Omnipotent, omniscient, omnivore, omnibus, omniplex and omnipresent: omni as a prefix is a much more familiar sound to the English-speaking brain.


“In that sense, it serves as kind of a magnet,” says Dr Lisa Davidson, chair of the linguistics department at New York University. “It’s a stronger mental representation, so it draws in strings of sounds that are close, like omi–. There’s lots of research showing that if you present people with strings of letters that don’t exist as words in English but could, they’ll pronounce it like the most frequent existing word that has the most similar set of letters.”


Dr Davidson recalled a paper she was recently sent “that shows that if you make an error of a newly learned word on a recall task, you’re more likely to keep making that same error (rather than a different error, or the correct pronunciation).” So people who are irritated by the mispronunciation may want to work on their serenity...

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