‘Going viral’ in Murphy’s pub

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.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

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:

Google Trends - '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:

16 Responses to ‘Going viral’ in Murphy’s pub

  1. Doré Bak says:

    I agree with your analysis in that this article about the geep points us back to the original meaning of the word “viral.” Even in the case of a biological virus infecting a single person or a small group of people, the spread of the virus may be contained within a limited space if certain barriers are set up in time.

    Marshall McLuhan says technology creates extensions of the human body, particularly the human senses. Perhaps technology also extends the meaning of words. For example, today when we “dial” a phone number, we’re in fact punching a keyboard on our cell phone or computer in order to speak with someone at a distance. “Dial” is a remnant from the earlier days of rotary phones. It’s the same when we say we’re giving somebody a “ring.” Few phones nowadays ring a bell.

  2. Roger says:

    The black box in the Indian Ocean search is a bright reddish orange gadget with a cylinder on a rectangular base and a squarish upright at one end. And there are usually a couple of them per plane for different purposes. So the news media enlighten themselves and then us, and then go on calling the orangey-red gadgets a black box just the same, in case we don`t otherwise get it. They probably favour the alliteration of the b`s too, esp. on broadcasts.

  3. John Cowan says:

    The box is black in the sense that we don’t know what’s inside it. Black-box testing is testing something without knowing how it works, only what it’s supposed to do; in white-box testing, we get to see what’s inside.

    I was also struck by the farmer’s use of back-end ‘autumn’ in the first few seconds of the clip, which I think of as particular to the North of England. Harvest, the oldest word for the season, now has a specialized meaning, and fall is I suppose now confined to North America.

  4. joan says:

    I had heard of these sheep /goat crosses many years ago but they were called shoats

  5. Stan says:

    Doré: There’s no doubt technology does just this. The language we use to refer to computer-related items is full of throwbacks to physical counterparts, such as files and folders. A corollary is the introduction of terms like dumbphone and analogue camera to distinguish older models of what were once just phones and cameras (a pattern I described briefly in this post last year).

    Roger: I don’t mind that a black box isn’t categorically black. Red hair isn’t red, either, and so on. No one is confused by the convention (though they might wonder why it’s so), whereas many people would be confused if news media started calling it an orange box. Alliteration isn’t a good reason not to switch, but avoiding confusion is.

    John: I hear that use of back-end occasionally in Ireland. I don’t know if it relates specifically to autumn, or late autumn; November is in winter in the Irish calendar, and I had the impression (possibly mistaken) that the back-end of the year could also refer to early December.

    Joan: That’s interesting. Shoat is a more normal-sounding word to me, but it’s already in standard use for a young, newly weaned pig.

  6. thnidu says:

    Stan, Doré: “terms like dumbphone and analogue camera to distinguish older models” are called retronyms: a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun [“film camera” is a retronym]

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hmm… I’m pondering what the late Dolly, the first-ever successfully cloned sheep might have said about this freakish accidental animal hybrid… this sweet, frisky wee grayish, wooly ‘geep’? In the words of Ebenezer Scrooge channeled through Dolly… ‘Baaaaaaaaaaaaah humbug!’

    On a more serious note, here in the U.S. I always took exception to calling the shopping-frenzied day following Thanksgiving Day, “Black Friday”, which sounds like a day of bleakness, and potential dire happenings. But as most folk know, the moniker derives from the commerce-based term, “being in-the- black”, which on the standard sales ledger means a profit is being turned, as opposed to “being in-the-red”, which connotes a net financial loss.

    If I recall correctly, “Black Tuesday” in Oct. of 1929, was the day the stock market suddenly crashed. In that instance, the appellation reflected the depressing state of financial affairs in the U.S. on that specific day when the market totally took a precipitous dive into the abyss. This was not the ‘black’ the the Wall St. speculators and traders were anticipating… or I dare say, used to.

  8. thnidu says:

    (to the tune of “Scotland the Brave”)

    Bring me some whisky, mother,
    I’m feeling frisky, mother.
    Clone me a sheep, for I am lonely tonight.
    And while you’re at it, mother,
    Clone yourself for my brother.
    Science is neutral, but Scotland’s depraved!

    (My takeoff on the older parody “Scotland’s Depraved”, written when Dolly was newes.)

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @thnidu… as a lapsed bagpiper who played the lilting tune “Scotland the Brave” innumerable times during my youthful piping days of yore, I must say I got more than a wee chuckle from your little bawdy poetic ditty, even w/ that naughty touch of implied Oedipal depravity. “Clone yourself for my brother”, indeed. Ha!

      I fondly recall a superb editorial cartoon drawn shortly after cloned Dolly the sheep’s birth by celebrated Washington Post cartoonist Pat Oliphant, of a Scottish Highland’s shepherd standing in his sheep shed, surrounded by hordes of the wooly creatures, w/ the caption (which escapes me now) making a clever double entendre referencing the almost now stereotypical notion of Scottish sheep herders rumored proclivity for ‘being-at-one’, so to speak, w/ their sheep… evidently an ancient palliative for lonely nights out on those bonnie braes.

  9. Stan says:

    thnidu: Thanks. I’m familiar with the term.

    Alex: The ewe’s mother seems to have accepted the geep without hesitation, but it would be interesting to see if it’s received differently in any way by other sheep.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      I would hope the little gaffer would be accepted by both sides of his curious lineage… his fellow goats and sheep alike.

      Although I have a suspicion that as the horns and other primary goat-like physical characteristics come to the fore, the ‘geep’ might attract the attention of the goats in its midst, more-so than its sheep brethren. Even though its mom is a full-fledged ewe. But since the wee bairn has a bit of each species in him (or her), who knows where its ‘social’ leanings might lie.

      It will be neat to see if the ‘geep’ has the goat proclivity for climbing up and ‘perching’ on various inanimate objects; characteristic behavior which I, for one, always get a kick out of observing.

      I love the black slit-pupil in the goat’s eyes, as well. Whether they are indiscriminate eaters of anything-and-everything, I’m not so sure.

      Stan, since you have a background in biological science, you might have a better handle on the prospects, socialization-wise, for this hybrid creature, going forward, than I.

      More and more these days we are hearing about purely platonic inter-species bonding, w/ some of the most seemingly unlikely couplings. A number of pictorial books have been published on this very subject. Jennifer S. Holland’s recent book, “Unlikely Friendships” from Workman Publishing/ NYC comes immediately to mind.

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    Don’t you just love the meandering route some words take back to their origins?

    At an event yesterday we had such a discussion around the word “skeet”.


  11. Stan says:

    WWW: Meandering is the word for it!

  12. graemeu says:

    Not sure why this would go viral as the terms aren’t novel. As quite a few comments are over what it should be called, my understanding is that it is convention. In this case it is a geep being a goat over a sheep where a shoat is a sheep over a goat. As both terms are already in accepted use, Farmer Murphy has little choice..geep it is in English.
    On socialisation it will be just fine, we have an orphan short-legged goat that terrorises the sheep flock and goes through as many fences as required to visit the ram when biological urges are to the fore, no shoats though.

    • Stan says:

      graemeu: I suppose the story was popular because it combines a fairly rare biological occurrence with the reliable appeal of cute animals. The novel names might play a part too.

  13. […] that the word has 1 Google hit today is a measure of its DOA virality. Of course, before language can spread between people, it has to colonise their […]

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