It’s a man’s world after all, linguistically speaking
West Coast Editor
Summer 2005

Last time, we looked at our society’s absurd fetish with the word “virtual” to describe reality. Yet, there is strength in this weak word, and we know this by virtue of its spelling.\

“Virtue,” “virtual,” “virtuous,” and of course, “virtuoso” all derive from the Latin virtus, which literally means “manliness.” Vir, as we all know, means “man,” as in “triumvirate” (rule by three men). From this masculine base, virtue denotes individualistic, artistic and martial excellence, with the implied connotations of powerfulness and force of character. Therefore, to say someone was virtuous originally meant that the person possessed estimable manly qualities.

In the late 14th century, the word began to take on the derivative meaning of verisimilitude— “on the strength of comparison with”—which is the source of our “virtual.” “Virtually,” as far as essential qualities or facts are concerned, dates to 1430.

However, by this time the creative, masculine essence of “virtue” had taken on a moral tone. The Catholic Church appropriated the concept to give us the seven cardinal virtues—justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, hope, faith, and charity.

Nevertheless, the original sense did persevere. In The Prince (1532), Niccolò Machiavelli speaks of virtù (excellence) in the sense of state power; that is, a good, strong prince must do whatever was necessary to establish and preserve society, even if that meant resorting to unvirtuous methods.

The sex-specific connotation of virtue is extinct today, except in one ironic sense—woman’s virtue. The idea of excellence and strength of character has now become associated with sexual inexperience—virgo intacto. “Virgo,” though, has no relation to vir, but rather means “unmarried female.”

Despite the alleged benefits of an intact hymen, the predominance of men in the video game and computer industry and the influence that these things have on our lives could mean that the virtual world really is a man’s world.