little o

The Greek letter omicron has been in the news recently, with the World Health Organization giving that letter to the latest variant of COVID-19 (skipping over nu and xi).

I had known for a very long time that Greek had two letter Os (omicron O o and omega Ω ω , corresponding approximately to the sounds in hop and hope), but it took me a long time to learn or figure out that they are literally little O (o + micron) and big O (o + mega) respectively. (Compare Korean ㅓ and ㅗ, the same idea and approximately the same sounds. (I don’t know if Koreans conceptualise ㅓ and ㅗ as being ‘closer’ than, say ㅏ and ㅜ.))

In other contexts, Little O is something mathematical, which I won’t attempt to explain, and Big O means something different to mathematicians, watchers of Japanese anime, writers and readers of erotica (no link, obvs) and fans of Roy Orbison. (Is there any overlap between those categories? Have two people ever had a seriously embarrassing conversation by assuming that the other meant something different?)

(See also the many uses of omicron and omega in the pages linked above.)

PS 10 Dec: Numberphile has a video about some mathematical usages of omicron, which I won’t pretend to understand. I noticed that he pronounced omicron with a short ‘o’ all the time, and omega with a long ‘o’ most of the time, but once or twice with a short ‘o’. I suspect that once Hindu/Arabic numerals came into use in Europe, omicron was less used because it could be mistake for zero. Notice that at 5.37 of the video, the paper they discuss is titled Big omicron and big omega and big theta. Big omicron is literally big little o, and big omega is big big o.


2 thoughts on “little o

  1. omega also has Christian religious significance; the phrase “alpha and omega” is often used in praise of God, being the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and therefore expressing the allness (is that a word?) of God.
    Compare epsilon and upsilon (or ypsilon), which mean “simple e” and “simple u” respectively; epsilon contrasts with eta and upsilon contrasts with, well, I didn’t know what until I went to the Wikipedia entry for upsilon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about the religious omega but couldn’t think about how to add it. The Greek of Rev 1:8 is Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, because the name ‘omega’ hadn’t come into use. Some manuscripts add αρχη και τελος but ‘alpha and omega, first and last, beginning and end’ is an expansion possibly in pre-King James/Authorised translations, but definitely by then. I can’t remember encountering it in Korean, but I have sung it: (fourth paragraph).
      Compare the hymn In dulci jubilo, which uses Alpha es et o, which is retained in the anthem but the hymn uses Christ is born today.
      Many years ago, I proofread the transcript of an oral judgement by a lower court judge. He started with the instruction that unless specified, aneurysm should be spelled with a ‘y’. The specified spelling, with an ‘i’, came in quotations from the High Court of Australia (equiv SCOTUS), which uses aneurism. At the end he pontificated about the Greek letter and the transliteration thereof. The first problem is that didn’t specify the spelling in one occurrence from the High Court (discussion with typist about whether we should do what he said or what he meant) and the second was that spelled upsilion (sic) incorrectly (which I can still remember). (Historically, aneurism was more common, but the two spellings switched in the early 20th C.)


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