The world’s elusive search for a “neutral” name
You need to choose a name. It’s likely to be the first of a series, so you should keep an eye toward the future. You want the name to be simple and memorable yet inoffensive to anyone, anywhere. And oh yeah, it’s literally a matter of life and death.
This year, our pandemic morphed from a monolith into a flock of ever-moving targets. The COVID-19 virus spawned a series of evolutionary variants, each requiring its own threat analysis—and each requiring its own name.
The process that led to the variant name Delta was in many ways an extraordinary one. It required the deliberation of multinational organizations balancing demands of science, politics, and public perception, with countless lives on the line. Yet the process was also a familiar one, echoing issues common to many name choices. The challenge of addressing an international audience, in particular, is a growing factor in our increasingly connected world. That makes Delta the 2021 Name of the Year.
The Need for a Name
When the COVID-19 virus first emerged as a global threat it went by many names. “Novel coronavirus” was descriptive but imprecise. “Wuhan virus” followed the common pattern of associating a disease with the place it was identified. “China virus” brought an element of political blame-casting. In February 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) put its stamp of approval on the names SARS-CoV-2 for the virus and COVID-19 for the disease, and unspoken public agreement settled on simply “COVID.”
By 2021 that shorthand proved insufficient. A new virus variant detected in India showed significantly different properties, and more variants lay on the horizon. We needed to be able to refer to them clearly. In June, a WHO committee deliberated on naming options and announced a new system of COVID names.
The committee first took pains to explain why a naming system was necessary at all. They described various existing scientific nomenclatures, how they came to differ, and how these differences could lead to confusion. This confusion, they explained, could make communication harder.
In short, they concluded that names are important because they help people talk to each other about things and tell them apart.
As self-evident as this insight may seem, it’s fascinating to watch the realization take hold. It’s a moment that must have happened countless times over the ages, a universal among all human societies. The next universal step is to choose which names to use. Like so many others, the WHO found choosing a name to be “not trivial for several reasons.” Some of the hurdles were specific to the subject matter, but other considerations they described were surprisingly familiar and relatable.
The Name Wish List
First, the WHO realized that people had to be able to remember the names and not get them mixed up. That was a failing of previous names like 20H/501Y.V2 and B.1.617.2. Businesses have long been aware of the limitations of that kind of coding. It’s why Macintosh operating systems are given public names like “Catalina” rather than 10.15.X, and why so many shoe companies give each style they release a human name.
Second, different interested parties had conflicting naming approaches and priorities. Scientists struggled to reconcile three nomenclature systems used in various parts of the world. Parents are surely nodding their heads in recognition of this challenge. Virus properties like genetic lineage, location of first identification, and biological characteristics sound a lot like “family names,” “the place we first met,” and “wait until we meet the baby to see what name fits.”
The name also had to be crowd-pleasing and not already taken. The WHO panel described the frustration of finding names that were “easy to pronounce, acceptable to the majority of experts consulted, [and] not already named after a person, place or company.” What’s more, they were determined to avoid any naming scheme that could be confused with anybody else’s virus naming scheme.
Finally and consequentially, the virus name had to be neutral. It could not be associated with any specific country or culture. This was a break from past practice, in recognition of the power of public perception. As a South African epidemiologist told Nature magazine, “I can understand why people just call it ‘the South African variant’ — they don’t mean anything by it…The problem is, if we allow it to continue, there are people who have an agenda and will use it.” Or in the simple words of another scientist quoted, “The geographical names, we have to stop with that — really.”
Any association with a deadly pathogen could unfairly stigmatize a country and politicize public health responses. The stigma concern was so great that there were reports of countries refusing to track or report on new variants out of fear of having the virus named after them. Naming neutrality, then, was more than just a matter of tact. It was a critical public health need.
The Quest for Neutrality
Is there such a thing as a simple, appealing, memorable, and globally neutral name? Even without the complex and delicate politics of COVID it would be a tall order. For a cautionary tale, consider the case of the programming language Coq.
Coq is a system for writing computer-verifiable mathematical proofs. Its name, the French word for rooster, started out as a play on the phrase “Calculus of Constructions” (CoC) and one of the language’s creators, computer scientist Thierry Coquand. English speakers, though, found that everyone snickered at their Coq work because the word’s English cognate doesn’t just mean rooster. So the international Coq community agreed to come up with a new name.
Their struggles are documented in this 8000-word review of discarded options. Every simple, pronounceable variation turned out to be another rude anatomical term in some language, somewhere. As of this writing, Coq remains Coq.
The WHO, in the end, turned to an age-old answer: the Greek alphabet. An alphabet offers the key benefit of an established sequence. That helps people keep the order of elements straight and, in theory, makes the selection of each successive name automatic. As for neutrality, the WHO banked on the vast number of different meanings assigned to Greek letters essentially cancelling one another out, rendering them generic symbols.
The WHO retroactively named early versions of the virus, then kicked off the new naming order with Delta (Δ/δ). At first glance, the letter seems to hit the generic target. Delta is a symbol for change or difference in mathematics. A family of subatomic particles in physics. A region of sediment at the mouth of a river. A symbol of the profession of dentistry. That looks like some good, harmless neutrality…unless your name happens to be Delta.
Delta Airlines, for one, took the labeling of the COVID Delta variant hard. The airline’s communications continued to refer to it as B.1.617.2, or simply “the variant.” That didn’t stop anyone from making the connection.
Delta is also a baby name. When the variant name hit, Delta Airlines sought solidarity with humans named Delta, especially the young and cute kind. After the mother of a 3-year-old girl named Delta tagged the airline in a social media post about the virus, the airline responded with a fully publicized Delta-themed care package. The baby name, which had recently made a comeback and hit new all-time popularity heights, seems certain to be a victim of the “neutral” virus name.
The Limits of Neutrality
A further blow to the notion of alphabetic neutrality arrived with a major new variant in November. The next Greek letter up was Nu (Ν/ν in Greek). That letter was rejected based on the English-centric concern that it would be confused with the word “new.” After Nu came Xi (Ξ/ξ). As it happens, this transliteration is the same as that used for a differently pronounced Chinese surname—the name of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The committee opted to leap ahead to Omicron (Ο/ο).
The Greek alphabet was already a limited resource even before they started culling letters. What happens when that resource runs out? In mathematics, the Hebrew alphabet is sometimes tapped next. Yet in this time of rising antisemitism, associating a disease with a Hebrew letter could be seen as courting stigma. Arabic or Cyrillic letters could be similarly problematic in terms of public response.
What does it mean, though, if only Greek and Roman alphabets are considered neutral? Declaring White Western culture as the neutral standard and protectively avoiding other cultural traditions is a loaded position in itself. Indian-American activist Kat Murti made this point after a white celebrity was accused of cultural appropriation for wearing a sari-inspired dress:
“Why are only Western clothes allowed to be worn by mainstream society? This kind of generally well-meaning social segregation has the overall effect of holding White Western culture as a neutral norm all other cultures can and should draw from, while simultaneously telling us our cultures must be kept to ourselves.”
In the end, every name has connotations. Even aiming at neutrality turns out to speak volumes about what we consider neutral vs. marked. The broader the audience, and the more connected our world becomes, the more difficult it is to find a name that’s acceptable to everyone. Nothing could illustrate the interconnectedness of the modern world more than a virus—and its name—that span the globe.
Thank you to readers Elizabeth and MollyCatherine for nominating Delta as the Name of the Year, and to everyone who comes to Namerology to talk names. Wishing you all a safe and satisfying new year.