What Does “Virus” Really Mean?

A pandemic etymology

The etymology of virus has gone viral

According to the Internet god of all things virtually true, the word virus comes from the Latin root meaning “snake’s venom.”

This viral etymology is repeated in one form or another on all the major sites about words –  wiktionary, dictionary, wordorigins, merriam-webster, etymonline, oxfordlearnersdictionaries. 

They’re all cribbing from the mother of all English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Virus: [L(atin) ‘slimy liquid, poison…] 1. venom such as emitted by a poisonous animal.”

It makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Viruses are sorta poison-spewing evil little animalcules, right? But all these free online sources are, like most thieves, lazy and simply repeat each other’s smash and grab larceny of the OED. No one owns words, but discovering their origins and sources is hard work. See “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). It’s free on Netflix. Thieves like free, right?

If we dig a little deeper – perform a more serious archeology on virus using the OED as our guide – we uncover in its sinuous history a message for our current coronavirus pandemic.

Virus and virtue

The second definition of virus in the OED is “path,” also deriving from the Latin. What’s the connection? It’s probably not the toxicity of snakes but a deeper shared origin having to do with their shape. A snake is shaped like a curvy path.

Sure enough,  if we wend our way next door to virus‘s neighbor word virtue, we see another clue: the original root of ‘virtue’ is vir, a Latin root for ‘man’. In ancient Rome, virtus meant courage on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently virile, masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of The Gallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should

Rely more on virtue than on artifice and stratagem.

But if you’re a logomaniac like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the oldest possible origin. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean something as elemental as ‘maleness’? [1]

So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or early Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. That’s the fundamental root connection: rod is a phallus or vice versa, and thus manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it also means rod. I will leave it to your imagination how it penetrated to the concept of virginity.

At the very root of language?

What etymologists fantasize about is traveling back in time to eavesdrop on the first burbling articulation by the first genius hominid who first invented the word they’re studying. Maybe – and this is a real fantasy – vir was the very first word, there at the aboriginal creation of language, of wording itself, where sounds came to represent and signify external things instead of only verbalizing hominid reactions to transitory events or warnings or coded warblings or states of existence.

So imagine with me a linguistic Adam and Eve alone in their grove. Fueled by the urgency of desire, a sound erupts from one or the other of them and she (or he) points at what they both want,

“Vir!” he (or she) said, nodding at it, and they look down and they smile in a flash of telepathy, for it was obvious that they agree this was a capital way to indicate that thing.

“Vir,” the other repeats, and “vir,” they would coo to each other from now henceforth, forever after referring to it in the kind of fond secret vocabulary that couples everywhere invent, pillow talk.

But somehow the secret gets out and catches on. Someone eavesdropped, the snake perhaps, and it spread, this viral app of pointing with sound, especially this happy signifying meme. Folks apply the sound pointer nimbly to other things like stick and rod, and eventually, surely by the time of the Latins, to snake. We’ve made the same slangy sling of meaning. Shlong comes from the German word for “snake,” to take only one of hundreds of examples.

The essence of virus 

Language isn’t a computer code but a stew. Dictionaries shouldn’t be lists of algorithms any more than cookbooks are chemistry manuals. As the pot of culture simmers, convenience, contingency, inspiration, necessity and even humor throw in new ingredients and flavors. A good chef would never follow a recipe slavishly.

Dictionaries, however, are by definition definitive, making pronouncements on fluid meanings as if they’re fixed. We can see how the conflation between venom and virus creeps in. It’s not really an error, but a cluster of images and metaphors that crowd and seep – I might say infect – each other. A snake emits venom like the penis spews semen. A vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. This is how we get to virus.

Snake down the path to yet another neighboring word in the Oxford English Dictionary, virtue, and the hidden route to virus appears.

OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is

the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being

Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Caesar’s exemplary man influences us to manliness by his valor. Divinity influences us to virtue metaphysically.

From here it is now one more small step to that other kind of invisible influenza, organic virus and virulence. The very word flu is a contraction of influenza. We now know that a microscopic pocket of weaponized genetic material causes flu pandemic. It sits astride the limbo between living and not, helping all-too-many souls to cross it, ubiquitous but invisible like G-d Himself. Through most of history, to most humans, it must have seemed metaphysical.

Pandemic as transcendental flu

Millions of words have already been written about the terrible virtues of this virus, how nature or the divine is exerting its superior influence over human affairs through the invisible Covid-19 flu pandemic, correcting our hubris, changing civilization in the blink of an eye, forcing us to inspect and re-evaluate assumptions about work, play, family, love, even self. Even if you cannot be persuaded that this – or anything else – has metaphysical origins, you have to admit the coronavirus pandemic is doing a good imitation of what a metaphysical being would do: making us consider the meaning of virtue as if we had indeed lost our path.

NOTE:  This is an extension of the etymology of virtual  that I wrote a few years ago: Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness. 

Author David Porush