Sunday, 22 March 2009

ooze and virus

Proto-Indo-European *weis- "to flow" became Old English wāse "mire, mud" and English ooze "soft mud or slime".

There's another ooze: "to flow slowly" from Old English wosen. The spelling was influenced by the first ooze but it is unrelated (OED).

*weis- became Latin uīrus "poisonous secretion, venom". This was borrowed into Middle English as virus with the meaning of "semen", and it didn't take on its modern meaning until 1900.

Some think the plural of English virus is viri or virii because that's what it might have been in Latin. But in fact the Latin uīrus doesn't have an attested plural. And it's a neuter noun, so if it did have a plural, it wouldn't have been *uīri. It's possible the Latin word had an incomplete paradigm, or it had a plural that doesn't survive in writing, or that it was a noncount noun with no plural. This last possibility is supported by the fact that its first appearance in English is as a noncount noun.

a1398 J. TREVISA tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 60, Among þe gentals [read genitals], on hatte þe pyntyl veretrum in latyn, for it is a man his owne membre oþer for virus come ouȝt þerof.

The only plural given in the OED is viruses.


Broccoli said...

How about woozy - is that related?

Glen Gordon said...

You wrote: "And it's a neuter noun, so it did have a plural, it wouldn't have been *uīri." I think you mistyped the sentence incorrectly. Did you mean "so *if* it did have a plural"?

On another tangent, I can't help but notice that Latin vīrus and vir 'man' are accidently similar in a Matrix-inspired Agent-Smith-monologue sort of way. :-)

_duif said...

The neuter is indeed puzzling. But I don't see how the plural could possibly have been uirii.

goofy said...

"virii" is an even weirder plural than "viri" but it is attested:

_duif said...

well yes, in English, presumably by people who don't know Latin.

nycguy said...

Here's why virus was a mass noun in its earliest attestation in modern languages:

When the germ theory of disease was being developed, you passed the infectious stuff through various filters of different density to see if you could trap the infectious component. It was a very successful practise, except that sometimes the liquid that passed through the finest filters avai;lable was still capable of causing infections.

In order no to beg the question of whether there was an agent analogous to a bacterium in this fine liquid, a word for liquid was imported fronm Latin to describe the infectious material.

Later on, when the infectious particles were isolated, the word stuck and acquired a plural form, since now we were dealing with discrete units rather than continuous material.

T%he history of serunm is similar, but got stuck at an earlier stage.