It's interesting the way words adapt, change and slowly start to mean something quite different from the time they first saw the light of day. Take the adjective «nice» for example. Now a few hundred years ago it meant «precise and exact».
So you would talk about «a nice measurement», which would mean that it was accurate. It still survives in that sense when we refer to the «nice» (precise) meaning of a word and we also speak of the «niceties of grammar», which concern the finer points. But it is a little word that has been overworked and as a result it has become devalued.
Most people only think of it today as «pleasant», «charming». In fact as the holiday period gets into full swing in July when the schools break for the long summer holidays, you can be sure that people will be receiving postcards from friends and relatives saying after a «nice trip» they are staying in «nice hotels» with «nice food» and that the weather is «very nice».
All very nice indeed but then this four-letter word is invasive and what I really wanted to write about was another word and its variations. This word is «virtue». In its simplest sense it refers to the qualities of goodness and purity and the adjective from it is «virtuous». In fact a «virtuous circle» is a continuous cycle of cause and effect where everyone benefits. This should be contrasted with the «vicious circle» where one evil or trouble leads on to another. «Virtuous» as a description suggests having moral uprightness. There is a character in Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT called Malvolio who, as the name indicates, is not a very pleasant person and tends to try and spoil other people's fun.
On one occasion another character in the play Sir Toby Belch again whose name typifies his enthusiasm for good food and drink, turns to Malvolio and says: «Dost thou (Do you) think because thou art (you are) virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale (beer)?» The implication here is that someone who thinks of the inner self only cannot aspire to being virtuous.
A step further with this family of words and we come to the idea of «great skill and ability». «Virtuosity» describes technical skill and ability very often in the field of the arts. In fact a «virtuoso» is a highly skilled performer in say the playing of a musical instrument or indeed in singing. Slowly we are drifting away from the sense of «piousness» and moral goodness to skill and the apparent ease and fluency with which it is exercised. Next we have the expression «by virtue» of that also has within it the concept of great effort and application. Take this sentence: «By virtue of their dedication, hard work and enthusiasm they achieved what they set out to do in life». This means that because they never stopped displaying these characteristics they were successful. As you can see there is still this trace of hard work and determination. Goodness can be found also in this expression: «make a virtue of necessity». This means that because you have to do something, you do it with good will, good grace.
Now we come to the title of my newsletter, which must have kept you mystified up till now. And the word changes slightly and becomes «virtual». The meaning is as near as possible to reality but not really achieving that goal. We use it as an adverb like this: In the 1930's when there was mass unemployment it was «virtually impossible» to get a full time job. You could get a job but then many people didn't get one. A stampede is used to describe a sudden rush of animals when they are frightened. When we qualify the word with «virtual», then we can apply this sudden rush to people as in: «When the store first opened its doors for the sale, there was a virtual stampede of customers looking for bargains». In other words it was like a herd of animals rushing into the shop. And then of course there's «virtual reality» as created by the computer which lets you believe that what you see and hear (and maybe one day what you feel and smell as well) is real. Your brain can be led to believe the reality but on further reflection it has to admit that it's not really real. And aren't we actually indulging in some kind of «virtual communication» right now? By the time you read this, I shall have long since stopped writing it. And that's virtually all I have to say except of course I could go back to that interfering word I started with you and say: «Have a nice day!»
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: What does it mean now?