virus, viral

Virus is a word that has evolved alongside the evolution in medical knowledge; before the twentieth century a virus was something quite different from the microorganisms we assign the name to today, and even more recently the word has broken the bounds of biology and infected the realm of silicon and circuits.

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Virus is from the Latin, where the word means poison, venom, or animal semen. Because of this last meaning, it’s tempting to associate the word with vir, meaning man and the source of the English word virile, but it appears as if the root of virus is quite different, and there are apparently no Latin uses of virus to refer to human semen. The Latin vir comes from the Proto Indo-European root *wiro-, associated with masculinity and giving rise to other words such as violence and virtue, while virus comes from the PIE root *weis-, associated with slime and rot and also giving us words like viscous.

The word makes its English debut in a translation of Lanfranc’s Science of Cirugie written sometime before 1400. In the translation the word is used to refer to pus or discharge from a wound:

If þe virus be wiþoute heete [...] waische it wiþ watir.
(If the virus is without heat [...] wash it with water.)

A couple of centuries later the Latin sense of venom entered English usage. This usage appears in the 1599 publication of Master Broughton’s Letters:

You haue [...] spit out all the virus and poyson you could conceiue, in the abuse of his [...] person.

And the virus-as-poison sense can still be found in current usage, as this 1988 citation from the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio shows:

Farmers cut the legs off woolen stockings to wear on wrists and forearms, for the virus of a snake bite would be absorbed by the woolen yarn.

The modern biological sense of virus as a microscopic pathogen appears in 1900. From the Journal of Comparative Pathology and Therapeutics of that year:

The virus of foot-and-mouth disease passes through a Berkefeld filter when it is suspended in a watery liquid.

As this citation shows, viruses were originally distinguished from bacteria and other microorganisms by their size. Filters could trap bacteria, but viruses were small enough to pass through them. As a result, many very small microorganisms were originally classified as viruses, although we wouldn’t do so today. Today, a virus is a DNA or RNA molecule surrounded by a protein coat and that can only exhibit biological functions inside a host cell. Alexander Nelson’s 1946 Principles of Agricultural Botany exhibits this modern understanding of what a virus is:

Some viruses have been isolated from the host, and all have proved to be some form of nucleic acid; they are of the nature of nucleo-proteins.

And even more recently, a new type of virus has been envisioned, the computer virus, appearing first in fictional accounts of future technologies. Science fiction often invents technologies that only later become a reality. Jules Verne anticipated the submarine and scuba gear in his 1869 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and H. G. Wells wrote about atomic bombs in 1914. Computer viruses are another technology that first appears in fiction. The first known reference to a computer virus is in David Gerrold’s novel 1972 novel When Harlie Was One. Gerrold specifically modeled the concept on pathogenic biological viruses:

“Do you remember the VIRUS program?”

“Vaguely. Wasn’t it some kind of computer disease or malfunction?”

“Disease is closer. […] It was a program that—well, you know what a virus is, don’t you? […] Let me put it another way. You put the VIRUS program into it and it starts dialing phone numbers at random until it connects to another computer with an auto-dial. The VIRUS program then injects itself into the new computer. […] You could set the VIRUS program to alter information in another computer, falsify it according to your direction, or just scramble it at random, if you wanted to sabotage some other company.”

Gerrold’s VIRUS was a specific program with that name (he also envisioned an anti-virus program called VACCINE), but it wasn’t long before other writers had picked up the idea. John Brunner’s 1975 science fiction classic Shockwave Rider features computer viruses and coins the use of worm in relation to such programs:

I’d have written the worm as an explosive scrambler, probably about half a million bits long, with a backup virus facility and a last-ditch infinitely replicating tail.

And from a 1982 issue of the comic Uncanny X-Men:

We simply design an open-ended virus program to erase any and all references to the X-Men and plug it into a central federal data bank. From there, it’ll infect the entire system in no time.

But by the time that X-Men comic hit the newsstands, the first real computer virus was already in existence. A ninth-grader in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania wrote the “Elk Cloner” virus in 1981, that spread among Apple II computers via infected floppy disks. By modern standards, Elk Cloner was pretty harmless, although it was persistent and was still being spotted a decade later. It wasn’t until 1984 that computer scientists started publishing papers using the term virus.

The adjective viral makes its debut in 1948, originally restricted to characterizations of the biological entity. But like the move to computers, the adjective has infected another domain, that of marketing. Viral marketing appears in 1989, referring to word-of-mouth advertising. From the magazine PC User of 27 September 1989:

The staff almost unanimously voted with their feet as long waiting lists developed for use of the Macintoshes [...] “It’s viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company.”

The advent of public access to the internet meant that viral marketing could go viral. From the New York Times of 30 August 2001:

Many of the new games are viral, meaning that they permit players to spread the games by e-mail to friends.

And from an 2004 essay by Andrew Boyd that appeared in A. M. Brown’s How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, in reference to the petition to end the impeachment proceedings against U. S. President Bill Clinton:

Their petition also went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks.

So virus and viral have gone from poisonous slime to internet meme in just six centuries.


“uiro,” “ueis,” Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words, A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. 430, 443–44.

“virus, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, 2008.

“virus,” Lewis & Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.

“viral, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

“weis-,” “wiro-,” American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, third edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 100, 104.

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