How to Pluralize the Word Octopus

This week, my students were puzzled with the plural of the word octopus. They campe across this question looking up various ocean animals. When they looked the word up in the dictionary, both octopuses and octopi were listed as plurals.

“Which one is it?” asked a student.

“Good question. I really don’t know,” I replied.

An interesting debate emerged among a few of the students when I asked them for the reason they had sided with one of the plural choices, each gave a reasonable response.

Etymology can be fascinating. As it turns out, octopus entered the English language in the 1700s and therefore took on the normal plural -es. Thus ‘octopuses.’ Apparently, grammarians at the time were trying to make English more predictable by using Latin endings and started using ‘octopi.’ Latin majors will argue about this as well. Something about 4th declension nouns, but I never took Latin, so it’s all Greek to me. Speaking of Greek, technically, the word octopus originated from Greek, and another group of grammarians pluralized it as ‘octopodes.’ This last form is found only in British English only and probably should be avoided.

Where did I learn this? You Tube!

That’s right. Directly from an associate editor at Merriam-Webster Online. The website is a nice resource and have several great videos that are perfect for kids who love words. They’re under two minutes long and a quick and easy way to get an expert into the classroom. The kids loved this short clip (especially the few that insisted on ‘octopuses’). When questions originates with the children, their motivation naturally increases. The resources available today are quite remarkable. The difficulty is sifting through it all.

One of my favorite titles in their series is, “Irregardless: It is in fact a real word (but it doesn’t mean you should use it.”

I think “octopodes” falls under that category. One of the things I love about teaching is learning new things with my students. Below is the video if you want to learn a little more.

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2 thoughts on “How to Pluralize the Word Octopus

  1. Thanks for posting the YouTube clip, Anthony! She is hilarious. “Ignorant slob” indeed!

    We had this very disussion during Math class today! I am going to show my class this clip tomorrow.

    YouTube is a fantastic resource. It is so quick and simple to use.

  2. Why is there a “which one”? I’d say that both are acceptable. “Octopi” if you’re a Latin language fan, “octopuses” if you’re an English fan.

    I question that “octopus” comes from Greek. Latin for “8” is “octo” (Greek: “okto”), and “pod” comes from Latin “pedes” (whence “pedestrian”). I like the argument that says, OK, now this is an English word, so we should use the English plural.

    More important is “what do you call a group of octopuses”? (The exercize is left to the reader.)

    Then there’s the Question Behind the Question: why are there names for groups of animals? Why not just “a bunch of lions”?

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