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Nu? Is the World Health Organization censoring its names of the Covid Variants? Our curiosity was piqued by the omission of nu. For nu is the second most prevalent Yiddish word after oy, according to Leo Rosten. His “Joys of Yiddish” defines nu as the verbal equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer.
It seems that nu is one of two Greek letters that WHO skipped when it named the latest Covid variant. Apparently it was trying to avoid embarrassing countries where Covid variants are first detected. Instead, it is going down the Greek alphabet, naming each new Covid variant in the order it was discovered.
The Wuhan variant is “Alpha,” despite the fact that President Trump’s favored moniker for the deadly virus is “the China virus.” Other less known variants followed before we hit 2021’s most infamous variant. After it hitting India, that version became popularly known as the Delta virus.
Next came yet a few others, until the UN-affiliated organization charged with overseeing global pandemic response today flagged the most recent one, saying it was “first detected in South Africa.” The WHO said it was “detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”
When it came to name this “variant of concern,” the WHO decided to be even more sensitive than simply avoiding an insult to an African country. It calls this latest one Omicron. So what happened to nu and xi, the Greek letters that followed the previous variant, Mu? The WHO ostensibly decided to skip nu because it didn’t want us to confuse it with “new.”
We have a cable from the famed, if anonymous, author of Mosaic’s “Philologos” column, cautioning that, if anything, we underestimate nu’s versatility. “Rosten gives it 19 different meanings and although some of these repeat themselves with slight variations, one can still say nu to mean a great range of things,” Philologos notes.
“It can also be an expression of impatience, a storyteller’s ‘Well, then,’ a request (when uttered with a question mark) to be told more, a declaration (if drawn out, as ‘nu-u-u!’) that one’s interlocutor is falsifying or exaggerating, and still more. Perhaps it’s just as well that it won’t also be the name of a new variant of Covid. It means enough things as it is, nu?”
As for Xi, the World Health Organization explains the omission as a move meant to avoid offending a whole “region.” That, to the uninitiated, implies that it feels an entire region would feel slighted were a virus given the same name as the surname of the Communist Chinese party boss, Xi Jinping. On that the sardonic Leo Rosten would probably mutter nu nu — as in “oh, come on.”