For so many of us, a virus might spell the end of our computer–not our lives, as we are witnessing so tragically in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sometimes a viral video is precisely what is needed to distract us from today’s feverish crises. Too often, though, a viral video may be distracting us from them.
But etymologies, I often feel, can bring us back down to earth–and quite literally so in the case of virus.
Originally referring to the “venom” of a snake in Middle English, virus is a Latin word, where it also named “venom” as well as “slime,” “stench,” and “poison.” An adjective form of the word, virulentus, or “poisonous,” provides us virulent. The pathological meaning of virus is attested in the first of the 18th century.
Etymologists like Eric Partridge offer an earlier Latin meaning of the “sap” or “juice” of a plant, especially a poisonous one. Sap can indeed be sticky, and hence the Romans spoke of viscum, “mistletoe,” whose berries yielded a sticky juice, which was spread on branches to trap birds–so-called “birdlime.”
Romantic, huh? The mistletoe tradition calls back Indo-European beliefs in the virility associated with the evergreen flora. Ironically, the tree’s berries are themselves virulent–well, poisonous–to humans. In its human designs, it spelled the end of many birds, many of which were actually depended on the plant for food.
From this viscum English has viscid and viscous.
As the American Heritage Dictionary diagnoses it, the Latin virus and its related forms are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *weis-, which meant “to flow.” Other scholars, including Ernest Klein, specify the virulence of this particular effluvium as “to melt away” or “rot.”
Other derivatives of this *weis– may include a secondary meaning of ooze, referring to a “mire” or “mud,” from the Old English wase, recognizable certainly not in shape but in sound.
The other ooze–as in a grilled-cheese sandwich or pus–is traced to the Old English wos, meaning, perhaps like virus, “sap” or “juice.” Due to the close similarities in sound and sense, some etymologists take these words back to the same root meaning “wet.” The Ninja Turtles, though, certainly didn’t help uncover the etymological secret of ooze.
From *weis-, Walter Skeat argues for wizen, “to shrivel” or “dry up,” living on in wizened. This probably from a different root meaning “to wither,” however.
Yet others propose weasel and bison, as well as the bison’s European cousin, the wisent. Apparently, this is from the fact that, as Jordan Shipley puts it, “some animals…smell, especially at rutting time.” Some cry foul at these derivations, though a Sanskrit cognate in meaning “musty-smelling” is interesting.
The Greek ios, Sanskrit visam, and Old Irish fi–all meaning “poison”–also derive from *weis-.
Virus indeed has an ancient root, but many of its uses are recent.
The Ebola virus was only first observed in 1976 in the Ebola river valley in the Congo. And David Gerrold is credited with one of the first uses of a computer virus in his 1972 science fiction novel When HARLIE Was One.
In today’s hectic information age, it’s easy to think that these kinds of things have been just always been around, so lodged these words are in our lexicon and consciousness.
But, more important, in our day-to-day motions, as we observe a crisis from a distance and try to understand an out-of-the-ordinary disease, it’s also easy to forget how truly devastating something like the Ebola virus. In its historical roots in senses of “stench,” “slime,” and “poison,” perhaps its etymology can make virus less abstract–and far more of the earth, our language reminders of vulnerability.