19 AUGUST 1989, Page 21

LETTERS Arma virumque cano

Sir: John Glashan's depressingly accurate cartoon (5 August) of a too-typical British GENTS or MEN is perhaps even more to the point than some of your younger readers may have noticed. Until a generation ago every grammar-schoolboy knew, from his reading of Ovid (Tristia, V) that the gender of virus (meanings: 'slime', 'poison', venom' or 'stench') is neuter. The particu- lar line, a pentameter, explains why death comes speedily to those whom the savage Invaders, near the mouth of the ice-bound Danube, have shot with their barbed arrows:

nam volucri ferro tinctile virus inest.

Perhaps the health-officers whose notice Mr Glashan is satirising learn at their teaching-hospitals that the plural of 'virus' Is 'vire. Is it still too much to hope that they know that there is nothing wrong with viruses'?

Michael Richards 65 Brunstane Road, Portobello, Edinburgh