'Omicron' by Any Other Name

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Omigosh, now we have… Omicron, everybody!

As Bonchie wrote yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made an official announcement on the name of the newest and scariest COVID-19 variant on the planet.

Then earlier on Sunday, my colleague Nick Arama’s piece revealed some very suspect ‘fact-checking’ by the Associated Press on why the new variant will be called ‘Omicron’ — not ‘Nu’ and certainly not ‘Xi.’ Because, just possibly, the WHO is loathe to rile up certain dictators from countries that may or may not have caused the Wuhan coronavirus to spread across the globe.

As she wrote:

According to the AP, this is the first time that the WHO has skipped letters when naming the variants. So, apparently, the only folks they don’t want to offend are those named Xi. They also don’t care about offending the Zeta cartels.

Calling it the Xi virus would literally be perhaps the most accurate name they could have chosen. But the WHO is so submissive to China, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

Now, what should we make of this? I think I can answer that in a different way from my colleagues, with a comparison even a child can understand.

Every single hurricane season, what system do meteorologists at the National Weather Service use to identify new storms? Why, they use names. People’s names. And what was one of the most destructive storms in recent memory? Hurricane Maria, a catastrophic, Category Five hurricane in 2017. Even CNN said so. Now, is Maria a common name?

You bet it is. Most people know that Maria is the Spanish version of the name Mary (or Miriam), the mother of Jesus Christ. No surprise, then, that it’s an extremely popular name, especially in majority-Roman Catholic countries. Including in the Caribbean, where the hurricane wrought a historic death toll and destruction.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), “Mary” is the most popular given name for female babies for the past 100 years (from 1921 to 2021), based on Social Security card application data as of March 2021. That’s 3,196,385 people, just in the United States. And “Maria”? The 50th most popular name in that time span, so add in another 529,342 gals. But we wouldn’t want to forget the Maries (down at the 92nd ranking out of 100 names)! There have been 361,371 of them.

On the statistics site for the Swedish government, you can find a nifty search tool that lets you find out how popular any given or surname is in the Scandinavian nation. How do Mary and Maria fare there? Per the tool, there are 10,028 women who have the name “Mary” as part of their given name, and another 82,731 are simply called “Maria.” But a whopping number — 444,524 — have Maria as some part of their first name.

But we never heard a peep of complaint from the WHO or anyone else about the offensiveness — to millions of women — by using “Maria” to describe this killer storm. At minimum, you’re disparaging a slew of people as violent. Then obviously, there’s the whole misogyny angle. Why do you suppose that is?

Coincidentally, “Mary” plays a part of one of my top musical numbers of all time, from George M. Cohan, one of the great American Broadway composers. (You might know we just lost Stephen Sondheim, whom we memorialized over the weekend.)

Here’s Cohan’s great song, in its movie incarnation (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”), with James Cagney and Joan Leslie playing Cohan and his wife — Mary. Enjoy!