We’re living in a virtual world these days. We go to work from home, we attend virtual church over Zoom and, thank goodness, our virtual school is now history. The virtual choir is all the rage on YouTube. You can even send a virtual cake for a faraway birthday.
All of this virtual participation in society is definitely a 21st Century phenomenon.
When I say the word “virtual,” you understand that to mean something that happens by means of computer technology. But what did the word mean back in the olden days, back before Al Gore invented the internet?
I always took “virtual” to mean “almost.” So, I might say that the grocery store shelves were virtually empty, meaning that there were still a few items left that the hoarders missed. But that’s not actually the definition of “virtual.” Let us go back in time and consult my American Heritage Dictionary, copyright 1981.
But first, let me enlighten you youngsters who think that the way to look up a word’s meaning is to type it into your browser and, voilà, up comes the definition. No. It takes a person of a certain age to appreciate the full experience of looking up a word in the dictionary. First you haul the thick volume off the shelf, blow off the dust that has accumulated since you last felt the urge to improve your vocabulary and thumb through the pages looking for that one particular word. This step might take a while. As the pages fan past, a little illustration of a sailing ship catches your eye and you have to pause to see what a xebec is all about. When nothing else on that page piques your interest, you flip back a few more, only to pause again to learn about the meanings of “voided” and “volant” in respect to heraldry (look it up — it’s pretty interesting stuff). Getting close now. Only a few more pages, and you come to the page headed “virology / visit.” After a brief digression to look at a drawing of the viscacha, a South American rodent which my computer wants to spell with a “z,” you pick out the word “virtual.” You can’t help noticing that the words “virus” and “virulent” are on the same page—in the same column even. Coincidence or conspiracy? You be the judge.
The whole process only takes 15 minutes or so, and your vocabulary is a good four words richer. Imagine what would happen if you played the Dictionary Game! (Ask me later—I’ll happily play it with you.)
Back to the dictionary. I notice that “virtual” and “virtually” each have their own entry. “Virtually” is more than a simple extension of “virtual” — it is a concept in its own right. So, here goes…
“Virtually” means, “in fact or to all purposes; essentially; practically.” Pretty close to my original impression of “almost.” It appears that I was defining “virtually,” not “virtual.” “Virtual” means, “existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name.” Some might notice that “virtually” stresses “in fact,” where “virtual” goes for “not in … fact,” a fine distinction that makes virtually no sense whatsoever. More to my point, there is no mention of computers in relation to the word “virtual” in my vintage dictionary. But the definition does seem to apply to our current virtual reality. The essence of our meeting, class, or church service still exists online, even if not in its familiar or actual form. I could truthfully say that my family’s virtual game of Settlers of Catan was virtually as much fun as if we were all five gathered around the same table.
So, I’ve been invited to a virtual college class reunion next month. Think about that for a minute. I can connect with my former classmates online, and all they will see of me is my head. No need to get trim and fit or buy trendy new shoes. All they will see of me is my head! If I keep the light low and smile a lot, they’ll think I haven’t aged a day. Forget the clever Zoom backgrounds — I can point my computer out my window to highlight the Alaskan rainforest outside. After all, the purpose of a class reunion is to reconnect with friends on the one hand, but also to show your former classmates that you’ve done well for yourself, right? Oh wait, that’s Facebook. Turns out a virtual class reunion isn’t such a novel thing, after all.
Maybe we’re all better at this virtual stuff than we think we are. Three cheers to us! But you can keep your virtual cake—when my birthday rolls around, I’ll hold out for the real thing.
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.