On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.


21 Responses to Octopoem

  1. John Cowan says:

    Alas, for me plural (NURSE) and neural (CURE) don’t rhyme. Do they for you, or is this deliberate imperfect rhyme?

  2. Stan says:

    John: It didn’t occur to me that the rhyme wouldn’t quite work in some accents. Plural and neural are a close match in mine.

  3. Well if there is much debate let me suggest octosixpointtwoeight as a suitable, to too two decimal point, alternative

  4. Oops let me amend my previous point and offer octothreepointonefour instead!

  5. Marc Leavitt says:


    Octopedes are why
    I prefer my octopi.
    And Octopuses
    Can’t drive buses.
    Those cephalopods
    Eat arthropods.
    Which plural works?
    Each has its quirks!

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    Octopodes. My fingers are faster than my brain.

  7. korystamper says:

    Well done! I’d try to come up with a companion verse to yours and Jeremy’s, but I used up my monthly allotment of rhymes yesterday writing a limerick using “Cholmondeley.”

    I use “octopuses” most of the time. This would, I am sure, absolutely devastate my fan club.

  8. Stan says:

    Jams: Ha! Trust you to further complicate matters (or mathers).

    Marc: Excellent, we have almost enough for an anthology now.

    Kory: I won’t say a word to your fans, just in case. Will your Cholmondeley limerick be appearing in public?

  9. korystamper says:


    There once was a lady of Cholmondeley
    Who was thought to be rather colmondeley.
    But for all her perfections
    she’d make no interjections:
    Lady Cholmondeley met all her guests dolmondeley.

    (Boy, I hope I’m pronouncing “Cholmondeley” right….)

  10. Marc Leavitt says:

    Great job! It’s a good lead-in to a discussion of idiosyncratic pronunciations of family and place names, not only in the UK, but in the US. For example, in New Brunswick, NJ, where I was born, the largest park is named Buccleuch (buck-loo, a Scottish name). We pronounce it “Bugle-oh.” Cole Porter was born in Peru (pee-roo), Indiana; In New Mexico, we have Madrid (may-drid), and in the UK, they have Slough(rhymes with how); Saint John is sin-gin, and so it goes…

  11. korystamper says:

    Marc: You could devote an entire career to the phonological idiosyncrasies of place and family names–or a number of careers. For my own part, I learned in four years of university in Massachusetts that “Gloucester” and “Worcester” were only two syllables a piece, locals don’t appreciate it if you pronounce “Falmouth” as “Foul Mouth,” and there’s no sounded “h” in “Amherst” (“AM-urst”) because it moved down the road and reappeared in “Northampton” (“North Hampton”). But cross the border into Vermont or Connecticut, and all those cherished phonological paradigms fall right apart.

    I no longer presume on the pronunciation of any place name or family name until I hear someone else take a stab at it first.

  12. Stan says:

    Kory: That’s great! And not the kind of poem one could ever recite glolmondeley.

  13. Whenever I see two of them, I just say “Look – there’s an octopus… and another one.”

  14. We have GOT to set this to music. Let me see what I can do.

    [Time passes…]

    OK, here’s a rough mp3 solo voice recording. I hope you think its artistic merit is no less than that of the original poem.

  15. Stan says:

    Edward: I hope you don’t often meet them in large groups.

    Adrian: Marvellous! Thank you very much – it’s more than the poem deserves. I was expecting a four-syllable octopodes, but the shorter form works better here.

  16. Claude says:

    La pauvre pieuvre.
    Quelle manoeuvre!
    Elle est chef-d’oeuvre
    Aussi hors-d’oeuvre.
    Célaphode mère,
    Comme on l’embusque.
    C’est éphémère
    D’être mollusque!


  17. John Cowan says:

    Stan: I take it that means you pronounce plural and pleural the same?

  18. Stan says:

    Claude, c’est chouette, ça. La pauvre pieuvre en effet. J’ai vraiment de la chance de recevoir ces poèmes!

    John: Yes, I think I pronounce them exactly the same.

  19. eimear says:

    I take it there is an implied nod back to Ogden Nash as well.

  20. Stan says:

    Nash’s Octopus didn’t occur to me at the time, Eimear, but he certainly deserves a mention. I’m very fond of his nonsense.

  21. […] Carey wrote a silly poem about octopuses, inspired indirectly by the word’s plurality of available plurals (octopi, octopodes, […]

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