December 1, 2021

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization classified a new coronavirus variant as a variant of concern. It’s called omicron, following a decision that the WHO announced in May to assign letters of the Greek alphabet to key variants.

But some social media users are suggesting it’s all a big joke because “omicron” is an anagram of “moronic.”

“Leftists will be fooled,” one post says.

These posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

It’s true that “omicron” and “moronic” are anagrams. Those are words or phrases made by rearranging letters in another word or phrase, per Merriam-Webster’s definition.

But there is no secret message there, just as there wasn’t when we fact-checked a claim that the “delta” in the delta variant means “deep sleep.”

When the WHO announced that it was using letters of the Greek alphabet for new variants, it said that “these labels were chosen after wide consultation and review of many potential naming systems.” The organization convened “an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

Omicron is the 15th letter of the 24-letter Greek alphabet. When the WHO runs out of Greek letters to use, it will announce a new naming system for variants.

This time around, the WHO did skip two letters to get to omicron. The previous key variant was called mu, which is the 12th letter. The 13th letter in the Greek alphabet is nu, but officials thought it could be too easily confused with the word “new,” The New York Times reported.

The letter after that is xi, which a spokesperson for the organization told the Times wasn’t used “because it is a common last name.” It’s the spelling of the surname of the leader of China, for example — Xi Jinping — though the pronunciations are different.

The Times reported that because WHO didn’t initially explain why it skipped nu and xi, it prompted speculation that the organization has been too deferential to the Chinese government.

But it’s not evidence that the pandemic is a hoax.

We rate those claims False.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Ciara O'Rourke is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. Previously, Ciara covered local government and public safety for the Austin American-Statesman and fact-checked elected officials and…
Ciara O'Rourke

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.

  • Why does Poynter insist on highlighting some of the worst of PolitiFact’s fact checks? Or are they all this bad?

    It’s simply a fallacious leap of logic to conclude the anagram was used as evidence supporting the hoax hypothesis. That conclusion has no better support than seeing the anagram image as a eye-catching advertisement for the accompanying text. That text should have served as the focus of the fact check.

    As for the image, “omicron” and “moronic” are anagrams. That’s a fact. There’s really no more to it than that.

    With Independents and Republicans (plus maybe even some Democrats), that sort of fact-checking damages PolitiFact’s credibility. Maybe consider doing a better job of fact-checking?