from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • adjective Of, relating to, or caused by a virus.
  • adjective Of or relating to the propagation of information, ideas, or trends by means of social networks rather than conventional mass media.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • adjective virology Of or relating to a biological virus.
  • adjective virology Caused by a virus.
  • adjective computing Of the nature of an informatic virus; able to spread copies of itself to other computers.
  • adjective Spread by word of mouth, with minimal intervention in order to create buzz and interest.
  • noun marketing A video, image or text spread by "word of mouth" on the internet or by e-mail for humorous, political or marketing purposes.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • adjective relating to or caused by a virus


from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From the stem of virus with suffix -al.


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  • "The viral popularity of the site propelled the blog’s creators onto the radar of the publishing industry. 'From the first day, we were getting calls from agents,' said Jessica Amason, one of the founders."

    – Jenna Wortham, "Public Provides Giggles; Bloggers Get the Book Deal," New York Times, 17 April 2009, here.

    A curious use of the word viral to mean "fast-spreading." I know this is a very trendy use, but I find it jarring here. Viruses are something undesirable, something we try to eradicate, whether the issue is physical health or the functioning of a computer program. It seems meretricious to use the word in a context where this negative connotation does not come into play.

    April 19, 2009

  • The quote doesn't surprise me; I've seen a few examples like that recently. I reckon this neutral usage is coming out of the emergence of the term viral marketing. Viruses aren't undesirable if you are the virus...

    April 20, 2009

  • Good point, Yarb!

    But it's appalling nonetheless. And a thoughtful writer should reflect on the implications of such a term.

    April 20, 2009

  • I agree with you, rolig, but in a world where otherwise reasonable people believe that vaccines should be avoided (!!!), it's kind of understandable. To me, the word still conjures a horror that was far more common where we are a century ago than it is now—and still is common, in many parts of the world. It's my totally subjective belief that this word would not be used so casually and off-handedly in an environment where viruses kill a lot of people every single day.

    But, can you think of another term that gets the point across as quickly and clearly? I can't, really (maybe because I haven't tried!).

    April 20, 2009

  • I'm part of the generation of gay men who came of age in the early '80s, which is certainly partly why I deplore such sanguine use of the word. But mainly it is because I feel that writers should be aware of the metaphors they play with. I have no objection to the phrase "viral marketing" because it reflects the insidious, parasitical, and ultimately mind-destroying nature of such covert advertising. If the people who do this want to compare their activity to pathological processes, that's fine by me; I see their work as being pathological. What bothers me is the implied celebration of the pathological, especially by someone like this NYT writer who doesn't seem to realize that that is what she is doing. If someone wants to say, "We're dangerous, we're gonna get you, we're viral!", well, that's OK, too; that's just recycled 1970s punk. What bothers me are middle-class writers and businessmen using the word as something positive.

    Alternatives? For the meaning, the NYT writer wanted, I'd suggest widespread, inundating, wildfire (also a bad thing to have happen to you, but at least it's out in the open), fast-spreading.

    It occurs to me that it is not so much the metaphor itself that bothers me; I'd have no problem if she had written "contagious", for example, though that also implies disease. I suppose it's that for me, viral is still firmly tied to viruses, and I think I want it to stay tied to them.

    April 20, 2009

  • It's funny, having a mind bent toward history, I tend to think first of smallpox, measles, polio, etc., and then of other viruses (such as HIV) that afflict the world. Obviously my head is just buried in the past...

    April 20, 2009

  • I don't know that it's buried in the past, c_b--but if it is, maybe I'm also guilty. That's still the connotation that stays with me--and that's one of the reasons I agree with rolig. (The other reason is that it does seem to be an easily grabbed catchword for writers who may be less than precise.)

    April 21, 2009