William Safire is on vacation, which is ordinarily a time to rejoice—the On Language column can for a few weeks be written by people who actually know something about language. But today’s column, by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, is a hopeless mishmosh. Its point is apparently to promote polite e-mails, which (though doubtless a Good Thing) is only tangentially concerned with language. Having realized this, they chose to lead in with a discussion of the word “virtual,” which, while indisputably appropriate for On Language, is only tangentially related to their main point. They then proceed to bungle the lead-in, discussing at some length the history of the (completely irrelevant) word “virtuous” while ignoring the question that is likely to be on the minds of anyone who bothers to read the column: how did “virtual” pass from meaning ‘possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities’ to (in their words) ‘existing in effect rather than in reality’? Languagehat is here to remedy the omission.
The transition is the meaning (OED’s number 3) ‘capable of producing a certain effect or result; effective’: “So vertuall was the speech of Paul a Prisoner, in the heart of his Judge” (W. Sclater, 1619). Now consider this quote (J. Smith, 1815): “Whatever is the real length of the leg b a [of a siphon], the virtual or acting length when in use, only extends from b to the surface of the fluid.” (Note the premodern commas in both quotes.) It’s natural to contrast the “virtual or acting” with the “real.” From there we get the OED’s meaning 4: ‘that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned’: “Every proof a priori proceeds by Causes either real or virtual” (Waterland, 1734). Now the weight of reality has shifted; the “virtual,” once the powerful agent, is now opposed to the real, and the way to the modern electronic-ethereal is open.
While I’m on the subject of the Times Magazine, the cover story this week is “The Odds of That” by Lisa Belkin, who for a reporter does a pretty good job of presenting the uncomfortable, unintuitive scientific truth (though she tends to use “we” too much). It’s about coincidence, and the tagline “In paranoid times like these, people see connections where there aren’t any” pretty much sums it up. Since I recently posted a rant about coincidence, I thought I’d bring it to your attention. You can never have too much balloon-pricking.