The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Virus’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Here’s a question for you. When the word ‘virus’ was first used in English, what did it mean? Let’s make it a little easier by making the quiz multiple-choice. Did ‘virus’ originally mean:

a) venom or poison
b) violent animosity
c) semen
d) an infectious agent?

Most people might plump for d), since that is the modern meaning of the word ‘virus’ as it is most commonly used today. Fewer people, but still a sizeable enough number, may opt for a), because of the similarity between viral infections and infections from poisons or toxins. I’d guess there would be fewer takers for either b) or c).

That’s a shame. Because in fact, c) is the correct answer. Yes, ‘virus’ originally meant ‘semen’ – and yes, ‘semen’ as in the male reproductive fluid.

But let’s go back to the very root of the word ‘virus’ and discover its etymology. We may as well begin right at the beginning. The word comes from the Latin vīrus, which meant ‘poisonous secretion’, ‘venom’, or more widely, ‘malignant quality’.

However, this Latin word was also used in antiquity to refer to other kinds of secretion, including those with medicinal or magical properties. These ‘secretions’ included animal semen and, in post-classical Latin, human semen (the early church father Tertullian used the word virus with this sense in the third century).

And when the word ‘virus’ first surfaced in English, in the late fourteenth century, it was used to mean ‘semen’. John Trevisa, the Cornish writer and translator, is little-known nowadays, but in the Oxford English Dictionary he’s the third most-cited writer for the first use of a particular word, behind only Geoffrey Chaucer and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

And it was Trevisa, in around 1398, who was the first known writer to use ‘virus’ in an English text. The context makes it clear what kind of secretion he has in mind:

Among þe gentals [i.e., genitals], on hatte þe pyntyl veretrum in latyn, for it is a man his owne membre oþer for virus come ouȝt þerof.

Of course, this particular meaning of ‘virus’ is now obsolete in English.

By the late sixteenth century, the word was being used to refer to types of venom, especially that secreted in the bite of a snake, spider, or some other venomous creature. However, the word was also being used metaphorically by this point, as in the OED’s instance from 1599: ‘You haue […] spit out all the virus and poyson you could conceiue, in the abuse of his […] person.’

In the Victorian era, the word ‘virus’ was briefly (and rarely) used to refer to violent animosity towards something, and this makes sense, given our tendency to talk about someone’s ‘venom’ towards people they don’t like, and so on.

But from the early fifteenth century, not long after John Trevisa had first used the word, ‘virus’ was being used to refer to pus or other discharge from a wound, and also, in some cases, to the agent of any infectious disease.

Amazingly, it would not be until the beginning of the twentieth century that the word would first be used in the modern sense, to refer to a microscopic agent of a pathogenic disease. However, given how recently the germ theory of disease (pioneered by Louis Pasteur and others in the nineteenth century) really is, we shouldn’t be surprised that ‘virus’ took so long to attain its modern, familiar meaning.

The OED notes that, initially, viruses were distinguished from other pathogenic agents only by their size: they were smaller than bacteria because they could pass through filters that bacteria could not. In addition, they weren’t visible with a light microscope. However, what distinguishes a virus now is the fact that it is able to function only within the living cells of a host animal (or other organism), and that it consists of a nucleic acid molecule (either DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat.

The word ‘virus’ was first applied to computing in the early 1970s, and is attested from 1972. A computer virus is a program (or a piece of code) which is reproducible, so it can copy itself when it is activated on a new device. A computer virus is thus like a natural virus in that it is capable of propagating itself.

In his 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, an important precursor to cyberpunk, the British science-fiction novelist John Brunner popularised the idea of a computer ‘virus’. Brunner also came up with the idea of the ‘computer worm’, a program that sabotages another computer (or a whole network).

To ‘go viral’, meanwhile, came out of the 1980s idea of ‘viral marketing’, whereby information, or an advert, were designed to be spread rapidly to lots of people. ‘Viral campaigns’ were being referred to by 1998, and the term ‘went viral’ was recorded in 2004, according to the OED.

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