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.



In a comment to a recent post, I mixed up the Korean words 색 (saek, colour) and 책 (chaek, book). Two words which I often mix up are 의사 (ui-sa, doctor) and 의자 (chair). Of course I can tell the difference between colours and books, and doctors and chairs in real life (but maybe a doctor is chairing a meeting!), but the words kind of look the same. In fact, the consonant letters of the Korean alphabet were designed to illustrate the connections between the sounds they represent. They are (with their most common transliterations):

ㅁ m ㅂ b ㅍ p

ㄴ n ㄷ d ㅌ t 

ㅇ ng ㄱ g ㅋ k

ㅅ s ㅈ j ㅊ ch ㅎ h 

(Annoyingly, Korean typewriter/computer keyboards don’t advantage of these patterns. My Korean typing is very slow.) (Compare the IPA chart.)

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The Pun Jar

Speaking of miscreants, several of my colleagues are dedicated punners. One former colleague was apparently not impressed, and set up a Pun Jar for ‘miscreants’ to contribute a small amount per offence. Yesterday, a (male) colleague decided that he didn’t want to be termed a miscreant, so he set up a Pun Jar B, for ‘mister creants’. Today I wrote ਪੰਜਾਬੀ underneath Pun Jar B, carefully copying from Wikipedia’s page on the Punjabi language. (I hope that text has reproduced on your screen.)

I have always pronounced Punjab with a /ʊ/, as in put, so Punjabi and Pun Jar B are not homophones. The first online dictionary I checked gives /ʌ/, as in putt, so the difference between Punjabi and Pun Jar B is only one of stress. Wikipedia’s page on the language gives the English pronunciation with /ʌ/, but the Punjabi pronunciation with /ə/, as in open. In my weekend English class, I currently have two students from Punjab, so I asked them, and they both said /ə/, but that they often hear native English speakers say /ʊ/.