Why Greek Letters Are Used For Covid Viruses

After a very sunny 2021 Greek summer, a lot of tourism, as well as optimism in Greece, unfortunately, the world news was once again dominated by  ‘corona’ or COVID 19’ since the Autumn of 2021, and the start of 2022…Once again, another difficult start of a new year…

No need to write more about it, there are articles enough in every single language, but just some thoughts about the beautiful names of those nasty viruses.

It seems the Greek language remains a very important language for the entire world, and Greeks should be honored that Greek letters are used by all scientists and governments in a pandemic :-).

So on a positive note, at least now the entire world gets familiar with the Greek alphabet. 😉

Did you learn the Greek alphabet already? Or do you remember the days you were learning the Greek alphabet?

In 2021 we already heard of the “alpha”, the “beta”, the “gamma’, and the  “delta”, and since November 2021, we got very familiar with the ‘omikron’

Why Greek letters are used?

At the beginning of the corona pandemic, the different variants that emerged were named after the location where they first appeared. Just think of the British or Brazilian variant. That gives a distorted picture because it is not because a variant is noticed for the first time somewhere that it also originated there. At the same time, it may create a stigma for the country or region in question.

Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been trying to do something about this for some time by giving the different variants a Greek letter. This has happened so consistently that the old names are not used anymore.

For example, the name “alpha” referred to the “British” variant, “beta” to the “South African” variant, “gamma” to the Brazilian variant, and “delta” to the “Indian” variant.

Just in case you are not familiar with the Greek alphabet yet, take a look at the video, and learn the 24 letters.



However, the choice for the letter OMIKRON is remarkable, because omikron is not the next letter in the Greek alphabet.  As you can see in the video above, between delta and omikron are 10 other Greek letters

Why the WHO skipped some Greek letters and chose the letter “omikron”?

Part of the explanation has to do with the ‘low profile’ virus variants epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, jota, kappa, lambda and mi …apparently, those viruses also exist,  but they did not make a significant breakthrough, so their names were not, or barely, used by journalists and in the media.

The Greek alphabet

If you look at the video above (or know the Greek alphabet), you will notice that two more letters have been skipped.

What happened to the letters “ni” and “xi”? In a statement to Reuters, the WHO said it is skipping “ni” because it may be confusing with the word “new” in English. (depending on how somebody pronounces the letter)

The letter “xi” has not been used either, because this is a common family name according to the WHO. What may also have played a part in “xi” is that it is also the name of current Chinese president Xi Jinping.  In the end, also scientists need to use some diplomacy from time to time.

The World Health Organization also refers to rules they have had since 2015 on the naming of infectious diseases. Rules that already exist before the pandemic. The purpose of these agreements is mainly to name diseases that sufficiently describe what they are about, are not too long, and are easy to pronounce. At the same time, it is the intention that the name of a new infectious disease (or variant) minimizes unnecessary negative consequences for cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.

So Greek letters do not really describe the virus, but it seems to be the solution and is accepted throughout the world.

However, we hope the entire “corona” pandemic will finally stop with the letter “omikron”, and other letters will not be needed anymore.

And do not forget, if you want to learn the entire alphabet, pronunciation, easy sentences, etc…there are more pleasant ways to learn the 24 letters…

Take a look at our alphabet ebook, and learn while you have fun, far away from a hospital


Learn The Modern Greek Alphabet


3 thoughts on “Why Greek Letters Are Used For Covid Viruses

  1. Tammy says:

    I find it frustrating that the letters are usually pronounced wrong. How do Greeks feel about the rest of the world saying their alphabet letters wrong?

    • Maya Cornelissens says:

      thank you for your comment, and yes, we understand your frustration. However, this happens in every language…also English learners pronounce many letters or words wrong in English. So I have never heard a Greek really bothered about the wrong pronunciation by a foreigner. Not that many people learn Greek, and not an easy language to learn…Even non-Greek teachers, teaching ancient Greek abroad, might pronounce the letters wrong…with the Erasmus pronunciation…
      So let’s be just proud the Greek alphabet remains very important, and when people already will realize those names are actually Greek letters, that is already a big step forward 🙂

  2. AGNES says:

    ενδιαφέρον! Ευχαριστώ Μαγια για αυτή την εξήγηση, ακριβώς αναρωτιόμουν γιατί είχαμε περάσει στο όμικρον από το δέλτα…

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