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Virtually Speaking

The computer age has revised our English language not only by introducing new words, but also by hijacking existing words to play new roles and convey alternate meanings. It does not help matters in those instances where meanings and usage were never clear to begin with.

Take the word “virtual,” for instance. As an adjective, “virtually,” along with “literally, figuratively, really, and actually,” has been a bane of the grammar police for centuries. These words are often used interchangeably, even when, as we are told, “virtually” and “figuratively” are literally the opposite of “literally” and all the others. Got that?

So what is meant by virtual reality? Is it the opposite of literal reality? Have we reached the state predicted by H. G. Wells, of “double speak?” I, for one, do not know – either literally or virtually. Am I literally confused, or virtually confused? It all gives me an analog headache, or is it a digital headache?

Other words that have been usurped include digital, tweet, avatar, net, web, cell (phone), surf, scan, thread and chat – to name a few.

Sometimes when I am confused about the meaning or usage of a word, I resort to looking up the word’s original meaning or derivation. “Literal” is literally a dead end. “Virtual” is somewhat more promising. Virtual is a formation from the word, “virtue,” which literally means (from the Latin word, “vir”) manly, or masculine, while also implying concepts of “valor,” “excellence,” “moral strength,” and “worth.” The Roman idea of “virtue” persists as a moral quality, but it also come to mean “due to” or “effected by,” as in the phrase, “by virtue of.”

By the time the 1600’s rolled around, “virtually” came to mean “as good as,” for instance, “he was virtually already dead.” So now we have something that has not happened, but is certain to happen, or which may appear to have happened, even though it did not. Therefore, those of us who are confused by the ambiguity of “virtually,” have four hundred years of longstanding bewilderment to point to.

Some of my friends believe that in the not too distant future, literal reality and virtual reality will merge, and there will be no distinguishing the two. Since the distinction never has been too clear to me, maybe I will not notice the difference. Plenty of people seem confident that what they are talking about is real when referring to “virtual” reality, while I must just pretend to go along. Privately, I do not believe I am the only one who is confused.

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