Virtue & Virus
On a recent traipse through the noisome squelch of untended meadows, that is, while reading word-origin websites, I forgot to pull on my wellies and thus, rubber-bootless, had to wade through fresh plops of bunk, fecal etymological baloney claiming that the words virus and virtue descend from the same Latin morpheme.
What slothful lip-flap! What nugatory hooey! What cretinous bilge! What a nescient nuisance of lackadaisical laxity! But mostly — What lazy slob first posited such claptrap?
Why, oh why, I daily ask owl-wise Minerva, goddess of wisdom, why does every letterless, drony bumpkin pine to don the wizard’s cloak and pontificate about words? I suppose because we all use words; words are the cheap chaff of our day’s noise. It never occurs to these listless quarterwits, all with the IQ of a decorticated slug, to perform a modicum of intellectual spade work, to dig up facts and triple-check them. Nah, dude, it would interrupt my snorting three lines of breakfast cocaine, before I tally my welfare checks and begin my arduous day of watching “American Idol” re-runs.
Casselman beseeching Minerva for an answer
Anyhoooo — here is the true sourcing of the words virus and virtue, whose etymological truths are far more alluring and coruscant than clod-penned drivel.
Terse classical Latin possessed a very small vocabulary, few words, in comparison for example with many-worded, blabber-mouthed, ancient Greek. Therefore individual Latin words had to carry multiple meanings. Ponderous indeed was each Roman lexeme’s semantic freight. Old Latin virus was such a noun. It meant slimy liquid, bitter juice, poison, snake venom, stinking odour, malignant personality in a person, therapeutic salve, magical secretion, repulsive taste, animal sperm, and, in later forms of Latin, human semen. What a freak’s code of meanings! Enough to cross a cryptographer’s eyes, not to mention his t’s.
Borrowed into medical English, probably during the fourteenth century, virus first named the pus of a wound or the foul discharge of an ulcer; later it was a snake’s venom; later still, during the early use of vaccines, virus named the infecting agent of a disease or contagious substance made by the body during a disease. So meant Louis Pasteur when he stated as a medical truth: “Every virus is a microbe.”
The most frequent current meaning of virus is best defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 2002): “any of a large group of submicroscopic infective agents that are regarded either as the smallest microorganisms or extremely complex molecules and are composed typically of a protein coat surrounding an RNA or DNA core of genetic material, that are capable of growth and multiplication only in living cells, and that cause various important diseases in man, animals, or plants (as mumps, rabies, or tobacco mosaic). . .”
The newest meaning is in computerese, where a virus is malignant code easily copied into more and more program locations where, happy do-badder, it can infect and mess up other programs’ procedures.
True Etymology of Virus
Latin virus is cognate with other Indo-European bases like Sanskrit visa ‘poison,’ Avestan vīša ‘poison,’ ancient Greek ἰός ‘poison.’ Virus’ interesting kin in a Germanic tongue like English is the word ooze! In Old English wase meant ‘marsh, swamp.’ Other reflexes of the morpheme were Old Frisian wase ‘mud’ Danish vejs ‘mucky river bottom,’ Swedish vesa, ves, veis ‘sticky muck,’ and Old Norse veisa ‘swamp.’ The /w/ of English wase was assimilated, helped by the very long dialectic pronouncing of the vowel a, and by the semi-consonantal w’s propensity to blend with a following vowel in the diphthongizing glides of daily speech, so that sounds like waase became oose became ooze. The first meaning of English ooze was ‘swampy wet mud.’
Current modern meanings of virtue include any quality of being good, worthy or admirable, whether morally good or good by natural talent. Virtue may be also possession of inherent qualities by an object.
True Etymology of Virtue
Virtue entered English from Old French vertu at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. The French word was merely the Romance form of the common Latin noun, virtus, virtutis whose semantic range embraced meanings like ‘worth, excellence, goodness, strength, bravery and manliness.’ The last is the root meaning in Latin, for virtus descends from the Latin gender noun vir ‘man, male.’
One of the happiest importers of the word vertu was Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great poet in Middle English, who opens his The Canterbury Tales, in fourteenth-century English, with praise of April showers and their wetness, which bathe every vine in sweet liquor (liquid), whose virtue engenders the flower.
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour. . .”
Chaucer also knew the list of the Seven Cardinal Virtues. The natural virtues or qualities were Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. The divine virtues were Faith, Hope and Charity, the last of which is pictured below as painted by Lucas Cranach.
This 1534 oil and tempera on wood is now at the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen. Charity (or charitas in medieval Latin) sits naked on a stone bench, her legs modestly crossed, with only a thin veil covering her head and shoulders. She breastfeeds her baby and allows two somewhat larger boys to cling to her.
Virgin, from Latin virgo, virginis is not related to vir ‘man,’ but rather to some mythological reason that Virgo the constellation was so often shown carrying a virga ‘a ceremonial rod or staff ‘ indicative of her power.’
Virgo as a constellation, shown here with the palmy "rod" of her power in her left hand and a bouquet of grain shafts in her right, perhaps suggestive of the potential fertility of a virgin (?).
Cognates of Virtue & Vir
The Latin vir ‘man’ had many cousins that appear in modern English.
A virago is a woman who acts (Latin agere ‘to act’) like a man (Latin vir.) A manly man is virile. A dick-wagging macho fuckwad may also partake of virility, but it is usually not necessary to remind him. An old synonym for male genitals popular with fastidious Victorian physicians was virilia. A virtuoso is an artist with outstanding qualities in her or his particular art, through Italian from Late Latin virtuosus ‘abounding in virtue.’
Our trudge down Stud Trail shall end with an obsolete term, but one in bad need of revival. There is no modern English synonym for our Italian borrowing, the word castrato, a male singer rudely derived of boyhood gonads in order to keep a boyish alto or soprano. Thankfully the brutal practice is universally illegal. Still, through Italian from Latin e, ex ‘out of’ + vir ‘man, manliness,’ English once had the nasty verb to evirate ‘to emasculate’ and such a wretch was an evirato. Greatly to be deplored was his lamentable eviration.
Three Virtuous Latin Sentences
Praestatur laus virtuti, sed multo ocius verno gelu tabescit.
Praise is bestowed on virtue but vanishes more quickly than frost in spring.
—Livius Andronicus (c.280-204 BCE)
Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros.
Fire tests gold; adversity tests strong men.
The Roman philosopher, writer and playwright Seneca, in De Providentia ‘Concerning the Operation of Fate,’ suggests that manliness and bravery can only be proven AFTER the battle.
Primum vir esto.
First, be a man.
Motto of Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas, USA.
And so, having touched, however briefly, the upper echelons of pedagogy, we may take our modest leave, grateful to have merely nodded to the Muses and scuffed our sandals upon the Kansan Parnassus of . . . Baldwin City.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
French Canadian Translation Services
Read Some Other of My Columns
1. Wog: Origin of a Racist Insult
2. Massage Words
3. Solstice: The Impossible Word
4. Hudson's Bay Hymnbook
5. Cabiria: Mysterious Origin of Italian Given Name