October 25, 2011

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.


Octopuses, octopi and oktopodes

October 2, 2008

Of the three words commonly cited as a plural for octopus, octopuses is the preferred term. The others are octopi and octopodes (pronounced ok-TOP-ɘ-deez, or ɒk’tɒpədiːz in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Fowler’s third edition claims that the only acceptable plural is octopuses, and that octopi is misconceived. Fowler’s second edition is still more blunt, calling it wrong. Perhaps, but octopi has been used by many reputable publications and raises fewer eyebrows than octopodes. The popularity of octopi, however, seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fowler is not alone in rejecting octopi; some linguists do so on the grounds that octopus was not originally a Latin word but a Greek one – hence the pedantic plural octopodes, which is rarely if ever seen outside dictionaries, usage guides, and blog posts such as the one you are reading. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage counters that octopus was imported not from Greek but from New Latin, which took it from the Greek oktopous. This gives octopuses a grammatical edge over octopi, as well as historical precedence (original citations in 1884 and 1922 respectively).

If you want to use octopus in the plural, choosing octopuses should forestall accusations of inaccuracy, irregularity or obscurantism. And if you want a break from etymology, here’s an octopus being amazing. Some commentators have described its remarkable communication strategy as a way of wearing its language on its skin.