More Ben

Dolor sit amet

More Than One Octopus

Are you familiar with the octopus? It’s an underwater animal that’s like a squid but different enough that it’s not a squid, it’s an octopus. Spend enough time being aware of these marine marvels and you’re sure to one day be involved in a conversation about more than one of them, and then you’re in trouble.

Talking about more than one of any animal is usually easy. “Bird” becomes “birds”, “squid” becomes “squids”, “flying fox” becomes “flying foxes”. You get the picture. Sometimes it’s a little harder. One “goose” may join a flock with many “geese”. One mouse might pester you for baked goods, but many mice doing so may lead you to question the value of the welfare state. And that’s not even touching animals like moose and sheep, who are apparently allergic to pluralization as a concept.

The technical explanation for these differences is that English is a mongrel mess of a language without a gardener to prune it. Our words come from all over, some from German, some from Latin, some from Chinese. And when we steal a word, our techniques for ingratiating it forcefully into this new hybrid tongue are far from consistent. Sometimes we anglicize the new entry, bending it to our collective will and making it follow our rules for spelling, pronunciation, and use. When the Persian polymath Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi first detailed his new set of mathematical methods, he did so by publishing them in his book al-Jabr, or “the rejoining of broken parts”. Today, we call those methods algebra. The French “dent-de-lion” loses all its internal meaning when it becomes our “dandelion”.

Other times, we get lazy and freeboot the word wholesale, pluralization and all. One alumnus of a school may attend a class reunion with many alumni, unless, of course, the school in question accepted only women, in which case they’re all alumnae.

Another example is cacti, the plural form of the word cactus. Cactus, like alumnus, comes to us from Latin, so it’s only natural that we complete the homage by refusing to separate it from its blood plural despite cactuses being easier to understand. 

Earlier writers applied this same logic to octopus, which they judged to also be of Latin origin. Now that you look at it, you can tell it’s a Latin word, can’t you?

…No you can’t, you fool, you charlatan, you scurvy cur. We may have stolen our name for this eight-legged neurological abomination miracle from Latin, but ours was merely the more recent in a line of thievery originated by the Romans when they pried it from the Greeks, the true inventors of the octopus.

And to them, our Latin-centric view is silly. In Greek,  octopi means “one who frolics among the refuse of sheep”.

No it doesn’t, but just imagine how silly we’d all feel. To Greek speakers, “octopi” doesn’t mean anything, because the more natural Greek-derived plural form of the word would be oktopodes, a word whose pronunciation is as beguiling to English speakers as the variegated talents of the animal it refers to (tool use, chameleon-style camouflage, death sex).

Regardless, the origin of the English word “octopus” isn’t Latin, it’s Greek. And so, linguistic purists will point out, our word for more than one octopus should be faithful to that origin. They’re “octopodes”. Case closed.

But language doesn’t work that way, does it? At least, ours doesn’t. Other European languages are regulated by bodies of giga-English Teachers, esoteric groups of stentorian academics keen to maintain linguistic identity at any cost. In the case of French, these academics, members of l’Académie Française, style themselves “Immortals”. That’s what happens when you give people power over language itself; they get unruly. If you’d let me choose my own name when I was twelve, you’d be reading this post on

In short, English doesn’t come with the sort of level of regulation that allows grown adults to call themselves “Immortals” with stunning technical accuracy. Thus, ours is a more organic language. We borrow and steal from other tongues, but what we do with our thieved bounties is more haphazard and bound to no system of consistency. Sometimes we keep words just the way they were, like the German Kindergarten and French déja vu. English doesn’t use diacritical accents the way French does, but sometimes we’re willing to make an exception.

In cases like those of the dandelion and algebra, maiming is more our forte. “Chaise longue” is French for “long chair”, but “shays lounge” is English for “chair that makes me feel French”.

To make a long tangent somewhat shorter: octopodes might be the pluralization most faithful to the word’s Greek roots, but the English language isn’t, by and large, bound by faithfulness. Technicalities matter in the short-term only. In most cases, the battle of linguistic prescriptivists is a Sisyphusian affair. I might have watched on in agony as “literally” was stripped of its authentic meaning and dressed up like a common gutter-variety intensifier, but it happened whether I accepted it or not. “Octopus” isn’t Latin, but people thought it was for a long enough time to give “octopi” a head start, and in language, sometimes that head start is all that matters.

So it’s not “octopodes”, a word that’ll never catch on, it’s “octopi”. It’s always been “octopi”, and the pretentious fucks trying to bolster the fetch-tier gutless skin of a word based on weird archaic rules should sign their surrender. “Octopi” is the winner.

…or is it? “Octopodes” seemed pretentious, but with it banished to verbal hell, isn’t it easier to remember that “octopi” is one of the original pretentious intrusions, an unwelcome interloper tracking mud onto our otherwise well-manicured conceptualization of language? “Octopi” might be the word you accept as the correct pluralization, but there was a time when that acceptance came begrudgingly. More likely than not, before you’d packed your comparatively cramped neurons with the idea that “octopi” was the correct word to use here, you’d made the once-and-never-again error of saying “octopuses” and subsequently been laughed out of the room.

Octopuses, you were told, is obviously incorrect. It’s obviously incorrect for the same reason octopi is obviously incorrect to the octopodes class, but that incorrectness is, for some reason, not all that obvious. So what is it? “Octopi” might be able to lay claim to victory in terms of popularity of usage, but its dominance is its own Sisyphusian intrigue: children will continue to learn it as the correct way to pluralize “octopus”, but they’ll learn it as an exception to their instincts, as a correction rather than assumption. “Octopi” is the flavor of the masses, but “octopuses” is strictly utilitarian.

So where are we going with this? Is there any definitive answer or did I waste your time only to leave you less certain and more anxious about the fragile basis upon which our method of communication stands? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’ve done. Knowledge is a disease and I’m a confirmed superspreader.

I can’t tell you which one is right, but that’s okay. In all likelihood, one of these words resonates with you better than the others. That’s the one you should use. And no one should judge you for it, because doing so is my job. So we’ll end this the most healthy way I can think of: with a little bullying. You’ve had time to weigh the choices. Here’s what your chosen method of pluralizing the word “octopus” says about you:

  • Octopi – You’re simple. You’ve heard the word “octopi” before and it works for you.
  • Octopodes – You’re pretentious.
  • Octopuses – You’re indecisive. You don’t really believe this is the best plural form for “octopus”. Of course you don’t; how could it be? It’s awful, it’s clunky, it sounds like baby’s first word. People who say “octopi” will look down on you. People who say “octopodes” look down on everyone. Honestly, you’d rather just not say it at all.
  • More Than One Octopus – You gave up on “octopuses”. It just wasn’t worth it. You went to the ‘find and replace’ tool and never looked back. You’ll look back if someone brings it up, though. You hope they won’t. You’ll get around to treating your anxiety eventually. For now, you’ll funnel your energy into longform pieces that start out as parody listicles and metastasize without fail into multi-page pieces that feature needless words like “Sisyphusian”, somehow twice in the same “more than one octopus” article.
  • Octopasta – You’ve typed “rawr xD” before and meant it. You’ve drawn a mustache on the inside of your index finger for ready application and you considered having it tattooed. Your favorite YouTuber growing up has a “Controversies” section on their Wikipedia page.
  • Octopussies – You have a criminal record. You smoke an extra cigarette or two every time you go to the liquor store just in case a high school kid needs you to buy alcohol for them. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you call it “paying it forward” even though you charge them 20% and threaten to “smoke them out” if they snitch on you.

Choose carefully. Now who wants to talk about platypuses? platypodes? more than one platypus?

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