"viral" (was RE: Licensing options for firmware)

Benjamin Rossen b.rossen at onsnet.nu
Thu Apr 7 12:35:47 UTC 2005

On Thursday 7 April 2005 13:39, Evan Prodromou wrote:
> I've heard it said that the term means "'Viral' as in 'marketing', not
> 'viral' as in *cough cough*." That's a roundabout way of saying,
> "hateful in another sense." There's definitely a good thesis paper in
> the term "viral marketing" -- the idea that common culture, interaction
> between human beings not dictated by big media, is somehow dangerous and
> febrile. I don't think it's a positive term there, either.

"Viral" is not a synonym for "hateful in another sense." Originally it was 
used in English having the Latin meaning of 'poison'. Early investigators 
found that fine filters, known to capture bacterial agents, passed disease 
giving agents. These were thought to be chemical toxins; hence the choice of 
the term 'virus'. When in 1935 Stanley crystallized the Tobacco Mosaic Virus 
and showed it to be a living or semi-living agent, a shift in meaning 
occurred. Virus came to mean 'an agent that infects and multiplies itself 
while making parasitic use of the host's resources'. 

By analogy, and at times by metaphor, we came to use it to refer to two 
classes virtual viruses, computer viruses and memes. By shift of meaning 
these have become primary meanings; the analogies and metaphors are now 
'dead', as they say in linguistic circles. These uses, too, are widely 
understood and thus 'virus' remains an excellent term.  

> The language we use betrays our thoughts, 

Well, yes, of course. That is what it is used for. 

> and it's hard to believe that 
> anyone friendly to or even objective about Open Source would use a
> loathesome term like "viral". 

The term is not loathesome. It is an excellent and widely understood term for 
the agents it refers to. On the other hand, the agents themselves may be 
loathesome, if they convey illness, are algorithms that wipe hard drives 
clean, or messages that persuade silly people to purchase inferior products; 
as may be so in the case of viral particles, computer viruses and memes, 
respectively. These are all legitimate uses of the word. 

To use the word 'viral' for Open Source Software is to commit an error for at 
least three reasons: 
(1) Open Source Software is not autonomously capable of infecting anything; it 
must be chosen.
(2) Open Source Software does not parasitize its host; it gives more than it 
takes and could be said, by analogy, to offer a 'symbiotic opportunity' (to 
coin a phrase).
(3) Open Source Software does not replicate autonomously; it must be copied by 
the individuals choosing it. 

It is the wrong word for Open Source Software. It is arguably even more 
inappropriate for GPL than OSL software. The GPL license is comparatively 
restrictive and GPL software less likely to be chosen, other things being 
equal. (Please don't misunderstand this observation. Other things are not 
always equal; a great deal of excellent software is available on the GPL 
license, and is widely used.) 

> You can use whatever words you like, of 
> course, but I reserve the right to pass judgement on you because of it.
> My verdict: crank.

You cannot use what ever words you like and still be correct. 'Virus' is not 
the correct term in this instance. Use of the term is unrelated to crankery. 
It is probably the result of inability to think clearly, at least a degree of 
illiteracy, possibly foolishness and quite probably poor habits of 

Benjamin Rossen 
Chief Pedant

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