You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmers Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.
After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.
In conventional usage, if something goes viral it has been viewed or read online by thousands or even millions of people in a short space of time. Because of the structure of the internet and the nature of its networks, this typically happens over a broad geographical area.
That is, large numbers and wide distribution are implicit in this sense of viral. So to say that a video went viral in a pub (whether ironic, tongue-in-cheek, or not) is an intriguing use of the word. I should stress that I’m not deriding the phrase. I’ve written before about how metaphors get extended, and I find this example interesting.
Virus and viral have meant several things to me: first medical entities, then microbiological (I studied basic virology), and later computer-software-related. Nowadays I encounter viral mainly in its benign, internet-driven sense, which usually relates to the rapid spread of a video, sometimes an image or a piece of text.
Virality is such a sought-after occurrence that many websites are built around attempts to engineer it. (The phrase viral marketing dates to at least 1989.) But going viral isn’t limited to social media and mass email: this Google Trends graph shows the growing popularity of the phrase go viral in news headlines:
What’s especially interesting is that something going viral over a small area among a relatively small group of people – as in a pub – brings the word much closer to its original meaning with its implications of immediate physical contagion, be it of an actual virus or something innocuous, like a yawn.
In a comment to his post about the blends geep and shoat, linguist Arnold Zwicky said that nothing quite nails the sense of something spreading this way, “so you can see why viral might have been extended” as it was in the Irish Times. I think plain old spread would have worked (“it quickly spread among customers in Murphy’s pub”), but maybe it’s fitting that going viral is returning to its intimate roots.
Here’s the Farmers Journal video of the animal and its owner Pat Murphy: