Wednesday, 25 March 2009

more (un)etymological plurals

I have encountered the opinion that the correct plurals of octopus and platypus are octopodes and platypodes, because that's how they are pluralized in Greek. This argument might make sense if a) the words were borrowed from Greek, or b) these plural forms were found in English usage.

But neither is true. The words are borrowed from scientific Latin octopus and Platypus, which in turn are borrowed from Greek. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that octopodes is never found in context; it's only used in discussions, like this one, about whether it is the correct plural form. (But I did find one in-context occurrence.) The same situation seems to hold with platypodes. The OED lists octopodes and platypodes as plural forms, but provides no actual citations with these forms. Judging from the citations, the most common plurals are octopuses and platypuses, closely followed by octopi and platypi.

I don't know if the scientific Latin words even have plural forms. If they had plurals, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be formed with -podes. And since they are borrowed from Greek, they are not second declension -us nouns and would not be pluralized octopi and platypi. But octopi and platypi, altho they are unetymological, are in use in English, and usage trumps etymology every time.

It's also interesting to note that the Greek words don't mean what the English words mean: ὀκτώπους (oktōpous) means "eight feet long", and πλατύπους (platupous) means "flat-footed".

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Update! It seems that Greek third declension nouns are borrowed as Latin third declension nouns with the stem change mimicking the stem change in Greek, so the Latin plural of "octopus" would indeed be "octopodes".

6 comments :

Drew said...

Interesting. And made all the more so as a result of the best illustration of an octopus ever.

Mattitiahu said...

I heard a rumour once in my Classics department that the professors once had a huge flamewar over the correct pluralization of the word 'syllabus'.

OED lists the origin as "mid 17th cent. (in the sense ‘concise table of headings of a discourse’): modern Latin, originally a misreading of Latin sittybas, accusative plural of sittyba, from Greek sittuba ‘title slip, label’."

So from its Latinate form, there was the camp that stated that the correct pluralization was to be 'syllabi', while the others said that since it's a neologized Latin borrowing into English, it ought to be 'syllabuses'.

I don't think that there was any consensus between the factions.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Are you saying you reckon 'octopus' is a 4th decl. noun, such that the plural would be 'octopus'?

goofy said...

Mattitiahu: wow, that's a great etymology!

Adam: All I know is that it's not a second declension noun. Beyond that I have no idea.

Glen Gordon said...

For loanwords, between choosing a plural morpheme from the donor language and choosing one's own most common native plural marker (namely -s), the latter is clearly the most mentally efficient solution since no speaker can memorize the proper plural forms of ALL languages from which English borrows.

Thus "syllabuses", "octopusses" and "platypusses" is the sanest solution. There. World issues solved the Stoic way. (XoX)

WordzGuy said...

+1 for Glen Gordon.