Using the technical jargon wasn’t going to cut it in an age when people can’t even remember their own phone numbers
by ANDREAS KLUTH
IN THE early days of the pandemic, a China-phobic American president delighted in melodramatically calling the bug “the China virus.” After all, it was nasty — another word he relishes — just like, in his opinion, that rival power.
In terms purely of nomenclature, Donald Trump was actually in excellent historic company. As long as anybody can remember, people have been naming bad stuff they don’t understand after other people they don’t like. A few centuries ago, before anybody knew what a bacterium was, Italians, Germans and Britons called syphilis “the French disease”. The Russians named it “the Polish disease”, the Polish “the German disease”, and so forth.
In this day and age, of course, we’ve become aware that this method of naming things isn’t always helpful. To fight pandemics and other natural disasters, we need to cooperate rather than stigmatise one another. Whether naming individuals or diseases, it therefore seems best to avoid the temptation of “nominative determinism”.
SARS-CoV-2 added its own urgency to this emerging controversy by mutating so swiftly and ubiquitously that everybody would before long have been stigmatising everybody else. Around Christmas, I was still holding a grudge against an offshore island that was clearly inhabited by irresponsible people exporting a “British” variant. When I then started being afraid of South Africans, Brazilians and other eponyms of new mutations, I realised it was time to move on to a better system.
So did the folks at the World Health Organisation (WHO), fortunately. After all, their job is in part to foster multilateral harmony instead of national stereotypes. But what to do?
Using the technical jargon — B117 for the type that emerged in Britain, B1351 for the one from South Africa and so on — wasn’t going to cut it in an age when people can’t even remember their own phone numbers. For the same reason, Treponema Pallidum never caught on for syphilis.
Mythology would have been fun, but then we tend to use that for things we look up to, metaphorically or literally. So, planets, moons and constellations are named after Olympians, Titans and assorted other deities, with either their Greek or Roman names. But fearing infection by either Aphrodite or Venus just feels wrong — besides, she already gave us “venereal”, which at least makes a certain sense.
Hurricanes and other weather disasters offer another alternative. The US has since the 1950s been naming those after people — initially women. But that can be harsh on individuals. I first realised this in 2005, when a lady named Katrina got up at a gathering I was attending and broke down in tears because she somehow felt vicarious guilt for a deadly storm that her beautiful name — which originally derives from Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic — should have had absolutely nothing to do with.
As the Americans figured out in the 1970s, naming frightening things only after women is sexist. They fixed that with equal-opportunity labelling. These days, havoc is just as likely to be wrought by Andrew, Michael or Hugo as by Sandy, Florence or Laura.
The Germans, like others who copied the Americans, name weather cataclysms after men as well as women. So, there’s been a long run of suitably ominous-sounding Teutonic storms like Holger, Guenter or Ewald, as well as Uschi, Frauke or Weike.
But then the Germans noticed that this too was politically incorrect, since it didn’t reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of contemporary Germany. This year, therefore, Germans were for the first time blown around also by an Ahmet, a Cemal, a Goran and a Hakim, among others.
Of course, it could here be said — as Juliet figured out in Act 2, Scene 2 — that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, from which it follows that a mutation by any other name is just as virulent. But that neglects the reason why Juliet was even wondering at all “what’s in a name”.
It was not Romeo’s name but his family’s — Montague — that was the main obstacle in her life. Put differently, nomen est omen, as the Romans used to say. That’s why Abram (exalted father) became Abraham (father of a multitude) in Genesis 17; why an author named Daniel Snowman writes about polar exploration; or why US President Ronald Reagan chose a spokesman named Larry Speakes. Okay, those last two are a stretch, but names matter.
So, are Greek letters a good choice for corona variants? They’re clearly better than “Indian” or B16172, which is what the fast-spreading delta strain would be called without the change in nomenclature. The system also helps in keeping track. The WHO is already fretting about everything from Epsilon, originally from California, to Lambda, which popped up in Peru. I wouldn’t want to catch Eta, Iota or Kappa either.
But giving the Greeks even more kudos — make that honour — seems excessive. They already have fraternities, sororities, fatty acids, weird numbers and lots besides. If we’d really wanted to be neutral, we could have chosen a respectable but moribund alphabet. Phoenician, say. That way, we’d now be worrying about dalet, he and lamed.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.