In a Word: Virtue in the Virtual

Does a virtual reality by definition, or at least by etymology, have virtue?

A man in a suit of armor and a medieval sword wears VR goggles.

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Out of necessity, many businesses are exploring the benefits of online meetings that allow employees to remain isolated; in other words, they’re discovering the virtue of virtual meetings. Those two words, virtue and virtual, have been part of my vocabulary for a long time, but only recently did I notice how similar they were. They have to be etymologically related, right?

A bit of research revealed that, yes, they are related, but not in a way I expected. How we got from a virtuous reality to virtual reality is a shining example of the unexpected ways language can evolve. And it all starts with a very simple concept.

Both words trace back to the Latin word vir, meaning “man.” There are arguments that vir evolved from an even earlier word meaning “stick” at first, which was then applied metaphorically to mean “phallus,” which expanded metonymically to refer to man himself. Regardless, vir (also the root of virile) was a word to describe a male person, and both virtue and virtual grew from it.

To Romans, the concept of virtus — what we would associate with virtue — was gender-specific. According to Webster’s Word Histories, virtus represented “the sum of the excellent qualities of men, including physical strength, valorous conduct, and moral rectitude.” Virtus, then, is essentially a Roman analogue to chivalry.

In the 10th century, the word found its way into Old French as vertu or virtu, and it was borrowed into English in the 13th century, its use and meaning taking on various shades along the way, as words do. By the 14th century, what had sprung from a word meaning “man” had lost nearly all traces of its masculinity; virtue described any quality or trait thought to be excellent.

By the end of the 16th century — Shakespeare’s time — the word had taken on a sense completely opposite to its masculine roots: virtue was shorthand for a woman’s chastity. (Chastity in men, by contrast, was not so prized or protected.)

Meanwhile, though the Latin of the Romans essentially died off in the 8th century, the Roman Catholic Church continued to use and develop the language in what we call Medieval Latin, which will lead virtue into the virtual.

One quality of a warrior exhibiting virtus is his effectiveness, his ability to control the course of a battle. In Medieval Latin, this focus on efficacy led to the adjective virtualis “effective with respect to inherent physical virtues or capabilities,” from which we English speakers get virtual. The focus seemed to be more on the effect than the capabilities, though, and by the mid-15th century, we start to see the word being used to mean “being something in effect, though not in actuality.”

As computers came on the scene, virtual was the perfect word to describe something that doesn’t physically exist but is made to appear so through software. This meaning of virtual appears earlier than you might think: It’s attested in 1959, though it isn’t paired with the word reality until the mid-1980s.

Today, something that’s virtual doesn’t have to be computer-generated, only computer-mediated. In the past week, for example, I’ve been involved in virtual meetings and a virtual happy hour, and my son even had a virtual prom.

Probably not the “excellent qualities of men” that the Romans had in mind, but that’s English for you.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. This is a fascinating look at the interesting trip this word has taken over several centuries. I’m not as surprised about ‘virtual’ (in the modern sense) going back to 1959. since watching a movie made that year just last week. In it, two men were talking about our astronauts landing on the moon very casually, expecting it to happen soon!

    I’ve long heard the word virtually to mean “almost the same.” You could say the ’67 and ’68 Camaro are virtually the same, except the ’68 doesn’t have the front vent window, has the new side marker lights for safety, and a slightly revised grill and taillights.


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