Guest column: Get real! Today, virtual is an outdated word

"That's virtually impossible," I told my mother. "There's no way I'm going to be able to get that done in time." "It was a virtual nightmare," the woman on the bus was saying. "You should have seen the crowds." Sound strange?

Yes, once upon a time, we all used the word virtual, and it had nothing to do with the Internet.

When we said it was a virtual community, we meant that it was, in essence, a community.

When we said we were virtually finished, we meant we were almost, practically, very nearly done. That's what virtual has meant since, oh, about 1654, according to Webster's Collegiate Tenth.

But fast-forward to the days of e-commerce - circa the late 1990s - and you get a new meaning that loosely translates as Internet-enabled, electronic (e-) or even just Web.

Why pick virtual? It has that nuance of something ethereal. E-commerce mavens may have sought to capture the otherworldly concept of credit-card numbers being zapped through space to order merchandise, the digital image of which a shopper has seen only beamed from afar.

But it's still a pretty big stretch from the traditional meaning of virtual, so I question how many people ever knew what it originally meant. Plus, those same mavens are now scrambling to make everyone comfortable with all things Internet, reassuring them that it's safe, it works, it's as good as a home-cooked meal. They shouldn't want to refer to it as virtual.

Speaking plainly - using Web or Internet or e- - would work much better.

Now, virtual storefronts, shopping carts and so on aren't the first virtual terms to spring from technology advances, even if they stray the furthest from the word's meaning.

In 1959, we got virtual memory: external memory for a computer that worked as if it were part of the computer itself. This memory operates virtually (in essence) as if it were part of the main machine.

In 1989, along came virtual reality, those machines we all know and love that you put your head into to experience something fake as if it were real. So close to real, in fact, that it's virtually - almost - real, even while it's plainly "an artificial environment," says Webster's, "in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment."

Yet that metaphor doesn't carry over well to virtual banks, virtual malls and virtual customers. Those entities aren't almost real: They are real.

Even if the Internet and its marketplaces are more abstract than malls and main streets, they are concrete businesses nonetheless. To call them otherwise is virtual nonsense - in the conventional sense of the word.

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