Anytime more than one octopus is in the news, which happens more than you’d think, people get worried. Is it octopuses, octopi, octopodes?
Last week we talked about other words from Latin that give English-speakers trouble in their plural forms. Octopus, though, attracts the lion’s share of attention.
An article about the ethics of animal experimentation declares: “octopuses – yes, that’s the correct plural term, not ‘octopi.’” A report on the growing demand for octopus meat stipulates that you can say “octopuses (or octopodes, but never octopi).”
The further back in time we go, the more emphatic the language gets. In 1872, one language lover railed against the word octopi as “abominable ... horrible,” rejected the word octopodes as “too learned,” and didn’t even deign to consider octopuses. If you must talk about more than one octopus, say “octopods,” he advised.
English plurals tend to be easy: Add “s” or “es.” Some Latin plurals seem to be easy, too. Words like alumnus, focus, locus, nucleus, and stimulus become plural by changing -us to -i, such as alumni, nuclei, etc. Even hippopotamus, which is only partly derived from Latin, can be pluralized hippopotami, though hippopotamuses is more common.
These are all second-declension masculine Latin nouns, which change in quite predictable ways. Declension is the way words vary according to number, gender, and case.
Octopus, though, is not a member of this group. It was originally a Greek word (oktopous), and it kept its Greek endings when it was Latinized, making its plural octopodes.
Octopus came into English only in the 18th century, as a result of that era’s love of Latin scientific names. Before then, these creatures had been referred to as poulps or prekes with a nice, easy “s.” As soon as English acquired it, though, we started arguing about its plural. Some thought it should have a good old English “s,” or didn’t care, and went with octopuses. Others saw that the word looked Latin and hypercorrected, creating a “prestige” plural that looked Latin, octopi. Still others mocked anyone who didn’t use the Greek plural, octopodes.
The effect is to make everyone feel inadequate.
Confronted with these squidgy creatures, we feel like schoolchildren who haven’t done the homework. I’d like to set your minds at rest. Octopodes has been around since octopus first came into English, although it has never been common and sounds a bit pretentious. Octopi is bad Latin, but is totally acceptable English. And octopuses has the standard English plural. All these are fine. We all pass the test.