An octopus has many arms, and also plural forms

Octopus came into English only in the 18th century. Before then, these creatures had been referred to as poulps or prekes with a nice, easy “s.”

An octopus rests on the ocean floor of the Hawaiian islands. People often wonder about its proper plural form – is it octopuses, octopi, octopodes?

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. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to An octopus has many arms, and also plural forms
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today