Why is it called “virtual” reality?

This week, Oculus VR released the Rift, the first virtual reality headset of its kind. But why is virtual reality called virtual? Let’s put on our, er, etymological goggles for this one; I promise it’ll be immersive. 

Virtue, mansplained

Today, we associate virtue with moral rectitude, often citing specific qualities like charity, patience, and temperance in contrast to vices like greed, gluttony, or taking selfies. English has been practicing this ethical virtue since the early 13th century, borrowing the word from the French vertu and the Latin virtus before that.

On a literal level, Latin’s virtus meant “manliness” or “manhood.” Indeed, at its root is vir, or “man.” The –tus was a noun-forming suffix, much like the very -hood we see in manhood. English derives the adjective virile from Latin’s vir. Viral and virulent are not related – by etymology, at least.

For its word for “man,” Old English used wer, a cognate of vir, which explains the were– in werewolf, literally a “man-wolf.” Wer is also related to world, a Germanic construct originally signifying a very anthropocentric planet Earth in “the age of man.”

The Irish fer or Welsh gwr are other notable relatives of vir and wer. For all this bromance, Indo-European scholars reconstruct the root *wi-ro, often used of warriors and slaves (i.e., captured warriors), itself derived from a base verb root meaning “to be vigorous,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.

The many virtues of virtue

For the ancient Romans, virtue also represented a traditionally heroic ideal. But they quickly extended virtus to encompass “strength” and “valor,” then generalized to “excellence,” “worth,” “quality,” or other special, inherent properties that gave something its “potency” or “efficacy.” French – and later, English – copied the vast and varied virtues of this word virtue.

When something has potency or efficacy, it has force, power, or authority. We might finish a marathon or dissertation – or this very blog post – by virtue of sheer willpower. This English expression actually translates a French expression, par la vertu de, or “by the power of,” often used in an official capacity.

By the 1400s, something virtual possessed virtue in that earlier sense of “power” or “efficacy.” As the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) helpfully elucidates, something virtual was “inherently powerful or effective, owing to particular natural qualities.” Translating medieval Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus’ encyclopedic De Proprietatibus Rerum, Cornish author John Trevisa provides English the earliest record with vertual, from Latin’s virtualis.

No easy virtue 

Now, in Latin, virtualis was often said of the healing properties, physical and spiritual, of drugs or medicines (derived from plants), which can help us understand the big metaphysical jump virtual takes. By the the mid-1400s, particularly in religious contexts, the OED explains virtual meant “in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality.”

Should we dust off our Aristotle? Something virtual is effective in essence but not in name, and this usage is all rooted in the idea of virtue as possessing a sort of innate, self-actualizing power. Within the acorn is the potential for the actual oak tree; the acorn, very broadly speaking, is a virtual oak tree.

After the Iowa Caucuses, to leave the philosophy classroom, Bernie Sanders declared his contest there with Hillary Clinton a “virtual tie.” Clinton technically won more votes, but the victory was so narrow that the two were, for all intents and purposes, even.

And if I say I’m “virtually broke,” I may have a hundred or two bucks in my checking account, but I can’t actually pay my all bills. I am not literally broke in name, but, really, I just don’t have enough money to get by. Hence, I’m virtually – or very nearly or essentially  – broke. The OED records this usage by the mid-1600s.

Scientists took to this virtual. At least by the end of the 1600s, they were variously applying it to special phenomena, particularly theoretical, rather than observed, in their discipline.

Virtual‘s reality

Centuries later, computer scientists found the term especially useful. In 1959, John Cocke and Harwood Kolsky presented a paper on virtual memory for an important computer conference in Boston. They described virtual memory as a way to increase computer speed. As in today’s computers, virtual memory increases a computer’s physical memory by temporarily using empty space on the hard drive as if it were real. This memory is additional memory in essence, hence virtual.

In 1979, as the OED documents, IBM used virtual reality as we now know it in a programming announcement: “A base to develop an even more powerful operating system,…designated ‘Virtual Reality’…to enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes.” If Oculus VR has its way, these universes will be not unreal but all too real. That is, if you can your hands on one. I hear they’re virtually impossible to get.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.

Slew

Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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The etymological underworld of “phony”

A few weeks back, Donald Trump caused a stir over his use of a certain p word.

That’s a topic we generally treat on Strong Language, where I recently published a piece dealing with some not unrelated matters in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Speaking of Shakespeare, be sure to swing by Shakespeare Confidential if you haven’t had a chance to recently. I’m six plays – and as many posts and more – into my yearlong effort to read the Bard’s complete works.

Now, more recently, Mitt Romney made his own headlines when he tried to take Trump to task with a very different p word: phony.

This epithet has something of an old-fashioned ring to it, no? The etymology of the word may quite literally bear this “ring” out, in a manner of speaking.

800px-weddingring
Is it real gold or a phony?  Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Phony

On the origin of phony, and its earlier variant, phoney, lexicographer Eric Partridge is quite helpful. Phoney, Partridge observes:

meaning ‘counterfeit, spurious, pretended,’ was little known, outside of North America, before American journalists, late in 1939, began to speak of the ‘the phoney war’.

This Phoney War marked a period of relative inaction on the Western Front after the Allies declared war on Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.

Partridge goes on to dispute some phony etymologies of the word:

The word does not come from ‘funny business’, nor from telephone, nor yet from one Forney, an American jeweller specializing in imitation ware, but, via American phoney man, a peddler of imitation jewellery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) agrees phony originates in colloquial American English, but first cites it in an 1893 reference to horse-racing slang , “‘phony’ bookmakers,” quoting The Chicago Tribune. The OED glosses them as “unofficial bookmakers issuing betting slips on which they do not intend to pay out.” From frontrunner to dark horse, US politics just can’t seem to unsaddle its many associations with horse-racing.

Back to Partridge. His entry on phoney continues, noting phoney man is:

from its original, the English fawney man, itself an adaption of the British fawney cove, one who practises ‘the fawney rig’ or ring-dropping trick, involving a gilt ring passed off as gold and first described by George Parker in A View of Society, 1781.

Cove is thieves’ cant for “fellow” or “chap,” the OED helps out. The dictionary also records Parker as the earliest evidence of this fawney rig. For a description of this con, the OED lets the 1823 edition of the famed Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue speak for itself:

Fawney rig, a common fraud thus practised:—a fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed, and ten times more than its real, value.

Imagine you’re strolling down the street when, suddenly, a nearby man drops a ring. He picks it up and says, “Hey, it’s a gold ring. It’s worth a lot, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll give it to you for half.” You, apparently, can’t turn down such a good deal for a luxury item and shell out your own gold for the fake gold. I can see someone peddling some knockoff jewelry when a customer’s in the market for it, but I’m having a hard time understanding the whole let’s-drop-a-ring-and-accost-this-random-stranger set-up to this scam.

The Dictionary of Crime provides some additional information about this confidence game:

The confidence man would drop a Lady’s purse containing a cheap ring and wait for someone to spot it. He would then pretend to notice at the same time and claim half the loot for sharing in the discovery. The confidence man or an accomplice would appraise the ring at three or four times its real value, and offer the dupe his half of the find for about double its actual value.

OK, the purse vehicle makes it a little more believable, and I’m sure there were many variations on the swindle. Still, the crime dictionary, observes:

Although the ruse sounds implausible today, one London jewelry shop specializing in bogus gold rings did substantial business as a fawney factory.

OK, returning to Partridge, who concludes:

The key-word is the British underworld fawney, a  finger-ring, a word brought to England by Irish confidence tricksters and deriving from the synonymous Irish fáinne. It was probably the Irish who introduced the word into the United States.

Indeed Irish for “ring,” fáinne, some argue, is from an Indo-European root that also put anus on Latin’s finger (and yes, that place we associated with pulling fingers). Today, someone wearing the ring-shaped Fáinne pin is displaying they’re not being phony about the Irish language – unless it’s a phony Fáinne.

While many etymologists suspect this origin of phoney is genuine, we still not absolutely certain of its truth. If it is true, the spelling of phoney, using ph– for f-, must be influenced by spelling of the Greek-based phone, I imagine. My speculation fits the historical timeline: phone, short for telephone, is recorded by 1880, while phone, as a speech sound in linguistic circles, is documented a little earlier.

And phony‘s passage from Irish to British and American English also generally matches with the Irish diaspora – though I, as a person of Irish descent who is soon moving to Dublin, must take umbrage at the aspersions phony’s origins casts on the Irish.

Phony, referring to a fraud, may well originate in a fraud. From his hotel in Vegas to his many wins on the campaign trail, Trump, no doubt, likes the gold. But trying to take him down with brass may not work, if his recent reference to yet another p word is any measure.

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Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.

Thug

Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

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