Word of the Day: Virulent

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, courtesy of WordThink, is virulent, an adjective which means, according to the website, “Extremely severe or harmful in its effects. Bitterly hostile or antagonistic; hateful” (http://www.wordthink.com/). According to www.dictionary.com, it also means 1. “actively poisonous; intensely noxious,” 2. “Medicine/Medical. highly infective; malignant or deadly,” and 3. “Bacteriology. causing clinical symptoms.”

According to www.etymonline.com, the word entered English “c. 1400, in reference to wounds, ulcers, etc., ‘full of corrupt or poisonous matter,’ from Latin virulentus ‘poisonous,’ from virus ‘poison’ (see virus). Figurative sense of violent, spiteful’ is attested from c. 1600.” By the way, in case you don’t know, the “c.” is an abbreviation of the Latin circa, which means “around.” In addition, the Latin virus is “probably from PIE root *weis- ‘to melt away, to flow,’ used of foul or malodorous fluids, with specialization in some languages to ‘poisonous fluid’ (source also of Sanskrit visam ‘poison,’ visah ‘poisonous;’ Avestan vish- ‘poison;’ Latin viscum ‘sticky substance, birdlime;’ Greek ios ‘poison,’ ixos ‘mistletoe, birdlime;’ Old Church Slavonic višnja ‘cherry;’ Old Irish fi ‘poison;’ Welsh gwyar ‘blood’). Main modern meaning ‘agent that causes infectious disease’ first recorded 1728 (in reference to venereal disease). The computer sense is from 1972.”

On this date 33 years ago the musical Les Miserables (Les Mis, for short) opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It ran for eight weeks. It then moved on to New York, where it ran for about 16 years, making it the second longest running Broadway musical, after Cats, until Phantom of the Opera surpassed it. The musical was adapted from the French novel of the same name by Michel Schönberg, who wrote the music, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, who wrote the original French lyrics, and Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the English lyrics.

Here is how Britannica describes the novel: “Set in the Parisian underworld and plotted like a detective story, the work follows the fortunes of the convict Jean Valjean, a victim of society who has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. A hardened and streetwise criminal upon his release, he eventually softens and reforms, becoming a successful industrialist and mayor of a northern town. Despite this, he is haunted by an impulsive, regretted former crime and is pursued relentlessly by the police inspector Javert. Valjean eventually gives himself up for the sake of his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her husband, Marius” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Les-Miserables-novel-by-Hugo).

Like most musicals or operas based upon novels, Les Mis focuses on just certain parts of the story and acts like a highlight tape of the book. The novel has some really long digressions, including one of the best descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo ever written. But the musical doesn’t try to convey that digression (though it isn’t completely a digression; in fact, there is information about some of the main characters of the novel, like the relationship between Thénardier and Marius, that explains some of the plot, but we don’t get that explanation in the musical).

After one of the productions I have seen, the audience booed the actor who played the part of Inspector Javert. I thought that was incredibly unfair. He actually performed very well, so well, in fact, that the audience apparently couldn’t distinguish between the actor and the character. Years ago I met an actor, named Bruce Kuhn, who had performed in the original Broadway production (he described his primary role as third convict from the left). But he also was the understudy for the role of Javert. He talked about his concept of Javert, how Javert was an Old Testament person living in New Testament times, a follower of the OT God of judgment and wrath confronted with Jean Valjean’s NT God of forgiveness and mercy.

But ultimately Javert’s judgment is not justice. His judgment is not God’s judgment but that of the State, the judgment of politicians and bureaucrats who create hierarchies within nations designed to allow them to live off the labors of others. Perhaps Javert’s motivation is pure; perhaps he is not aware of the corruption of the masters he serves. But, as we learned after World War II, following orders is no excuse for injustice.

Javert’s thirst for retributive justice, for retribution against Jean Valjean, is virulent. It is poison. We need to replace retributive justice with restorative justice (http://www.cscsb.org/restorative_justice/retribution_vs_restoration.html).

The image is Colm Wilkinson and Terrence Mann in Les Misérables (http://www.markrobinsonwrites.com/the-music-that-makes-me-dance/2015/8/22/the-top-ten-musical-theatre-villains-of-broadway).