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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, January 21, 2011

Going slimy

Cold and flu viruses are, as usual at this time of year, wreaking havoc. In Latin, a virus was a slimy liquid or poison. We borrowed the word around 1600 to designate snake venom. A century later, it was thought that disease caused the body to produce poisonous substances, for which this word meaning “venom” was appropriate. But then in the 19th century Louis Pasteur realized that nasty submicroscopic organisms are not the result of disease, but its cause, and used the word “virus” in the way we have understood it ever since. Computers have been suffering from viruses since 1972.
"Viral marketing" has been with us since 1989, and postings on the Internet have been "going viral" since 2004. Somehow, I don't think this phrase would have caught on with such positive connotations if it were instead "go slimy" or "go venomous"! But speaking of which, it would be great if Wordlady went viral, so do click on those "share this on Facebook/Twitter" buttons!

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.