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Word trends: viral

Computer virus
Viral now has more meanings than it used to. In the twentieth century, you would only have encountered this word in the physiological context of diseases:

Rabies is an acute viral infection that is extremely rare in the UK.
A quarter of the residents had high levels of viral hepatitis.

In the twenty-first century, most people are happy to spread viral infections to their friends, family, and work colleagues. They do so not by sneezing on them, but by sharing memes, links, images, or videos that have amused on intrigued them. These examples from the Oxford English Corpus show the viral being used like this:

Using multimedia, his blog and the viral nature of the net, he’s shown that one voice can echo around the world.
Because of the comments and the viral natures of blogs, mistakes usually end up correcting themselves.

The influence of this word-of-mouth publicity on brand awareness and sales is enormous, and one of the commonest compounds of viral in its new sense is viral marketing. There are now entire companies, known as viral agencies, devoted to creating potential viral hits for businesses.

Viral has also recently become a noun, meaning ‘an image, video, advertisement, etc. that is circulated rapidly on the Internet’.

This is part of our new series looking at word trends. Please contact us on Twitter if there are any words with changed meanings you’d like us to explore.