Q: Why are so many things going viral? Pictures of cute puppies or kittens or kids may be widely seen on YouTube, but “viral”? An ugly image, and it’s wildly overused. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. And now you can move on to your next complainer.
A: The verbal phrase “go viral” may be going viral these days, but we kind of like the imagery: the rapid spread of a YouTube video likened to a virus running amok.
The noun “virus” has been around in one sense or another since the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from a classical Latin term for a poisonous secretion, a malignant quality, and animal semen, among other things.
When it entered English sometime before 1398, the OED says, the noun referred to either semen or pus, but it later came to mean any infectious substance in the body.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, though, that the term was used in its modern medical sense, which Oxford defines this way:
“An infectious, often pathogenic agent or biological entity which is typically smaller than a bacterium, which is able to function only within the living cells of a host animal, plant, or microorganism, and which consists of a nucleic acid molecule (either DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat, often with an outer lipid membrane.”
In the 1970s, according to published references in the OED, the word “virus” took on its familiar figurative sense in computing:
“A program or piece of code which when executed causes itself to be copied into other locations, and which is therefore capable of propagating itself within the memory of a computer or across a network, usually with deleterious results.”
OED citations indicate that the adjective “viral” first showed up in the late 1940s and the verbal phrase “go viral” in the late 1980s.
The adjective was used at first in the medical sense. A 1948 citation from a medical work, for example, refers to “viral agents.”
By the late 1980s, the OED says, the adjective was being used in the marketing sense to describe the “rapid spread of information (esp. about a product or service) amongst customers by word of mouth, e-mail, etc.”
A Sept. 31,1989, article in PC User, for example, describes the “viral marketing” of Macintosh computers.
The OED’s earliest citation for “go viral,” the usage you’ve asked about, is from How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (2004), a collection of accounts by young people who influenced elections:
“Their petition also went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks.”
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