August 14, 2002
It's Nice To Feel Needed

It appears that I've gotten a mini-Instalanche (an Insta-flurry?) and some other bunches of referrals without actually writing anything to deserve it. InstaPundit and Joanne Jacobs both want to know what I think of Neal Stephenson's distinction between two kinds of warmaking, assigned to Athena and Ares, and Megan McArdle wants to know the correct plural of "virus". Over the last couple of days, I've gotten several hundred hits from the three combined, so I guess I'd better write something -- better late than never.

Unfortunately, at the moment my books are all in Toledo and I'm in Baltimore, but I won't let that stop me. (By the way, the web has a long way to go before it can replace a decent personal library. Perhaps I'll blog more about that later.)

  1. Taking the easy one first, the Latin word virus has no plural, and it's impossible to say what it would be if it had one. In general, if a second declension noun is masculine or (rarely) feminine, it ends with US in the singular and I in the plural, like English alumnus/alumni and focus/foci. If it is neuter, it ends with UM in the singular and A in the plural, like English referendum/referenda and datum/data. (Not that anyone other than Latin teachers remembers that data are plural.) But there are two second-declension nouns in Latin that end in US and are nevertheless neuter. One is virus, the other vulgus, "the common people" (as a collective). Neither has a plural. If they did, would it end in I, because the singulars end in US, or in A because the words are neuter? The question is unanswerable, and the only available plural in English is therefore "viruses".
    Of course, Classical Latin virus does not mean "virus", since microbes had not been discovered. (Are viruses microbes? Ask a biologist.) Lewis and Short's old but still useful dictionary is on-line at Tufts' wonderful Perseus site. Here are its various definitions for virus: "a slimy liquid, slime", sometimes used "of animal sperm or semen", "A poisonous liquid, poison, venom, virus" (the last obviously not in the modern sense), "An offensive odor, stench", "A sharp, saline taste". Sorry you asked, Megan?
    In her comment section, 'Charlie' (comment 2) says "'Viruses' is the accepted English plural of 'virus.' The Latin word vīrus, meaning slime or poison, is indeclinable and provides no guide for a plural form (such as your helpful suggestions 'virii' or 'vira')." This is just about right, but the word does have other singular forms (e.g. genitive viri, "of slime") so it's not quite indeclinable. I don't recall whether that makes virus a 'defective' noun, or there is some other grammatical term for the phenomenon. Defective verbs are those that don't have a complete set of forms. In English, "can" meaning "be able" is defective, since it has no forms other than the present ("can") and past ("could"). ("Can" as in canning vegetables is a normal verb with a complete set of forms: "have canned", "had canned", "will can", and so on.) For the rest, we have to use "had been able", "will be able", "could be able", and so on -- except in the South, where "might could" is acceptable.
  2. What can I say about Athena and Ares, which is pretty much the same as the distinction between soldiers and warriors? It's a very big subject, and much more up Victor Davis Hanson's alley than mine. But here are a few thoughts:
    • Achilles does indeed go berserk in the Iliad after the death of Patroclus. But Homeric warriors on both sides are not usually so maniacal.
    • There is a hint of the warrior/soldier distinction at the beginning of Book III, when the troops first go into battle, with the Greeks (= Achaeans) as soldiers, the Trojans as warriors. Here are the first nine lines, again from Perseus "Now when they were marshalled, the several companies with their captains, the Trojans came on with clamour and with a cry like birds, even as the clamour of cranes ariseth before the face of heaven, when they flee from wintry storms and measureless rain, and with clamour fly toward the streams of Ocean, bearing slaughter and death to Pigmy men, and in the early dawn they offer evil battle. But the Achaeans came on in silence, breathing fury, eager at heart to bear aid each man to his fellow."
    • Even in the Iliad, warriors fight for a wide variety of reasons, not just loot (most of the Greeks) or to avenge a dead friend (Achilles after Patroclus' death), but to defend their city and family (Hector), to avoid the shame of running away (Paris, who has to be pushed into battle), to retrieve a lost wife (Menelaus), or out of loyalty to a superior (most of the second-string heroes). Not to sound like a French intellectual, but lining up all the Homeric warriors with Ares and all the phalanx warriors with Athena is terribly simplistic.
    • Ares is surprisingly unimportant in Greek myth, especially considering he is the only non-crippled son of Zeus and Hera. Several of Zeus' numerous illegitimate children are more important. Of course, Athena may look more important to us than she would have seemed to most ancient Greeks, since so many surviving authors were from Athens, which was named after her. (Or was she named after it? Hard to say.)
    • Mars is much more central to Roman mythology, at least until poets finished conflating them into a single bicultural god with two names. Mars is a patron god of Rome, father of Romulus and Remus, and his month (March) was originally the first month. (We know this because September, October, November, and December obviously mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, and Quintilis and Sextilis, the names of July and August before they were renamed after Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, mean 5th and 6th.) Unlike Ares, Mars was originally a god of agriculture as well as war, and March marked the beginning of the farming and campaigning seasons. (The two tended to coincide because invading enemy territory is much more effective if you can burn their crops while you're there.)

That's about all I can come up with off the top of my head. If I only had my books, I could write so much more. (Is that a threat or a promise? You be the judge.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 14, 2002 11:58 PM

Datum has a life of its own, independent of its Latin plural. For example, on a NOAA map or nautical chart, the reference datum, these days, usually North American Datum of 1983 (NAD83) is listed.

NAD83 replaced NAD27 and is almost identical to the DOD World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS84) reference.


Posted by: steevil on August 15, 2002 10:05 AM

March was considered the "first" month of the year (with March 25 as New Year's Day) in England up until the early 1700s...I think this convention didn't entirely die out until the adoption of New Style dating. Thus, though we say that the execution of Charles I took place on January 30, 1649, in contemporary English documents it is listed as January 20, 1648. Later in the 17th Century, I've noticed that the English sometimes started including the Continental year in dates, e.g., "February 11, 1678/9"

Posted by: Brian Swisher on August 15, 2002 12:28 PM

re a mini-Instalanche (an Insta-flurry?) Reynoldeluge - n.
Reynoldeluvian - adj.

Posted by: Fuze on August 18, 2002 03:42 PM