The politics of naming plague variants was fraught even before Donald Trump began talking about “the China virus”. Spaniards were not thrilled at being nominally blamed for the 1918 pandemic of “Spanish flu”, now known as H1N1. But strings of numbers and letters are hard to keep track of, so perhaps there is a middle way between those and the demonisation of perfectly innocent geographical areas. Just because a nasty new bug is first noticed in a place doesn’t mean it originated there.
It is for such reasons, indeed, that biomedical officialdom has decided to start using more neutral names for what are euphemistically called “variants of concern”. The “Indian variant” of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, now the most prevalent in the UK thanks to Boris Johnson’s liberal policy with the borders he took back control of, has been renamed Delta, being the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. (Kent was alpha, South Africa beta and Brazil gamma.)
Sad to report, the more xenophobic sections of the press haven’t really entered the spirit of this new practice, continuing to refer to “the Indian ‘delta’ variant”. Meanwhile, the American airline Delta is probably looking forward to the discovery of epsilon.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.