Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Plural of virus

There are many schools of thought on the question of what is the plural of virus. Or to be precise, seven schools of thought.

The first is that virus is an irregular noun, derived from the Latin word for "poison", and therefore we need to make it a plural in the same way we would with syllabus/syllabi, fungus/fungi or cactus/cacti: "viri".

The second school of thought is that "viri" is bogus, because that in fact is the Latin word for men, not poisons, and therefore we need to make virus plural by dropping the -us ending and adding two i's, just like the Romans did with filius/filii (son/sons): "virii".

The third school of thought is that the word is virus and not virius, and anyone who would hallucinate an extra i in the word is obviously a nutter. There is no recorded use in Latin of virus being used in the plural: it is an uncountable word, like air[1] or bravery, and so didn't take a plural.

Therefore, like chassis, corps, deer, moose, sheep (and sometimes fish) the plural is the same as the singular: "one virus, two virus".

The fourth school of thought is that saying two virus is just wrong, no matter what the rules for bloody 4th declension uncountable nouns are, and that perhaps virus in the original Latin was like corpus/corpora, opus/opera and genus/genera: "virora".

The fifth school of thought is that the plural of virus, like certain other Greek words, should be "vire".

(This is the point where the first four schools of thought batter the fifth school with a Clue Stick, because virus was not a Greek word.)

The sixth school of thought is that "virorum" sounds about right, if virus was a second declension neuter noun, which it wasn't, and if we thought to correct the Romans' own spelling, which we don't.

The seventh school of thought is that we aren't ancient Romans, and the English word virus is not the Latin word meaning poison, and we aren't obliged to follow the Latin rules of making words plural any more than we are obliged to follow Latin grammar.

Therefore virus is a regular noun, and we make it a plural using the same rule used for words like bus/buses and campus/campuses.

So there you have it: seven possibilities, all of which (with the exception of virii, which is just dumb) have respectable rationalisations, although the one for "vire" is really stretching it.

Viri, virii, virus, virora, vire, virorum and viruses. Which is correct?

When faced with a difficult question like this, there is only one way to decide:



Obviously we can't include "virus", because any search we do will find the singular as well as the plural. Besides, while virus to the Romans was an uncountable noun, like "fun" or "information", in the modern English sense it is countable. So virus is out on a technical disqualification.

On with the Googlefight! Last word standing is the winner!

Round One:
VIRI defeats VIRII 2,380,000 to 711,000

Round Two:
VIRI thrashes VIRORA 2,380,000 to 582

Round Three:
VIRE defeats VIRI 4,400,000 to 2,380,000

Round Four:
VIRE soundly defeats VIRORUM 4,400,000 to 267,000

Round Five:
VIRUSES tramples VIRE into the ground, stomping it flat and doing a little victory dance over its bloody corpse with a comprehensive 50,900,000 to 4,400,000 massacre.

But wait... fight officials are investigating the participants for the illegal use of acronyms, place-names and words in Foreign to bulk up their scores. So let's repeat the Googlefights with more focused terms:

COMPUTER VIRII defeats COMPUTER VIRI 313,000 to 144,000
COMPUTER VIRII defeats COMPUTER VIRE 313,000 to 187,000
(Vire isn't so tough without all those place-names, hey?)
COMPUTER VIRII defeats COMPUTER VIRORUM 313,000 to 14,800
COMPUTER VIRUSES defeats COMPUTER VIRII 18,700,000 to 313,000

The results speak for themselves: despite apparently 313,000 over-educated but not-quite-as-educated-as-they-thought Latin-philes and/or L33t5, VIRUSES is the overwhelming winner. And all is well with the world.

Aside: this exercise is an interesting example of the growth of the 'Net. I had originally done these Googlefights back on 23 November 2004, with considerably different results:

viri 389,000 2,380,000
virii 426,000 711,000
virora 309 582
vire 397,000 4,400,000
virorum 35,000 267,000
viruses 11,700,000 50,900,000

[1] Air in the sense of what we breathe. "Airs and graces" seems to be the only exception, and that is merely a figurative sense. Back


Anonymous said...

I hereby suggest/establish(?) an 8th School of Thought for The Plural of Virus: viridae
See http://cancerweb.ncl.ac.uk/cgi-bin/omd?-viridae
or Google for viridae yourself.
I also disagree about the plural of air. We refer to batches of wine as wines. What about containers of air that have come from different places, eg mountain air, sea air, ... Are these not different airs?

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