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.
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.
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.