If you saw an octopus in the water and another swam up beside it, would you say that you saw two octopuses or two octopi? Or would you insist that you saw some octopodes? Today, we’re going to look at the name octopus as well as the creature that’s causing all this grammatical fuss. We’ll help settle the debate on octopi vs octopuses once and for all.
The Etymology of Octopus
The etymology of the term octopus isn’t that special. The word comes from the Greek words for “eight” and “foot.” When combined, the words create “octopus”. Also, the word technically has a root in the New Latin word “octopod.”
If you’ve seen an octopus, the term is apt because it refers to the creature’s eight legs. The cephalopod has two eyes and a beak that it uses to tear into its prey. Although its name makes no mention of it, the octopus is said to possess a high level of intelligence. In fact, they might be the smartest invertebrates in the world.
These animals have managed to complete a variety of mazes, puzzles, and other tasks during experiments. While humans have not plumbed the depths of their intelligence, scientists have identified some genes that could be responsible for their intellect. They are also well-known for being tricky captives since they find unique ways to get out of their enclosures.
Now that we know a little bit about the octopus, let’s focus on getting to the bottom of the plural term.
Octopi vs Octopuses: Which One is Correct?
The word “Octopuses” is the correct plural form of octopus. At least, it’s the most acceptable plural form according to many of the leading minds on grammar, including various English dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary claims that in its English form, octopuses is the only correct variant.
Both the Cambridge Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary list octopuses as the primary plural term and recognize octopi as another option. However, octopodes is another acceptable plural form, but it is the least-used version.
How do we know which one is right, though? If you’re ready to go down a grammatical rabbit hole, we can show you why you’ll want to say octopuses and maybe ease back on saying octopi.
Octopi vs Octopuses: The History of the Terms
We gave you the answer, and now it’s time for us to show our work. Where did the confusion about the plural forms of octopus come from? The problem stems from the fact that we’re basically looking at three different languages. The word originated in Greek, was adopted into New Latin, and then plundered by the English language.
These languages have different rules for pluralizing words. Thus, the Greek word would make sense as octopodes. If the word was Latin, it would make some sense as octopi. Remember, though, that the word was borrowed from Greek for New Latin.
The end of the word octopus does not come from the Latin ending –us, it stems from the Greek word pous, meaning foot. Technically, since the word doesn’t have a Latin root, it’s not correct to pluralize the word with an –i ending.
The English language adopted the word octopus. As a result, it makes sense more sense for it to adapt to English language conventions. Thus, the plural of octopus should be octopuses when speaking in English.
In terms of correctness, the best way to pluralize octopus would be octopuses, octopodes, and then octopi. I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t you just say that “octopi” is the wrong term?
Yes, but now we’re going down into the murky depths of grammar to see if anything we’ve said here really matters.
Octopi vs Octopuses: Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist Approaches
Generally speaking, we can look at the prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches concerning how we use language. Basically, a prescriptivist adheres to the proper rules for how to use language, but a descriptivist approach examines how the native speakers of a language use it in standard and non-standard ways.
For example, prescriptivists tell people not to end sentences with a preposition or start sentences with a conjunction. They would also tell you that the most sensical way for you to pluralize octopus would be by saying octopuses. After all, it follows the English conventions for a word that the English language has adopted.
A descriptivist would recognize why English-speaking people misinterpret octopus as a Latin word and pluralize it as octopi.
In the most technical sense, the plural version of the word should be octopuses. However, descriptivist adherents, including the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, would say that the language has evolved and includes octopi as a reasonable pluralization.
We’ve gotten to the bottom of the pluralization debate. If you want to be correct, you can say octopuses. If you want to be pedantic, you can say octopodes. If you want to be on the cutting edge of the language, try out octopi. Don’t be surprised if your grammarian friends wince when you say it, though.
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- Cambridge University (1970) cambridge.org/core/journals/english-today/article/abs/fuss-about-the-octopus/8828E2086E6F4F30EEF3EF9245019DB3
- LiveScience, Available here: https://www.livescience.com/jumping-genes-octopus-intelligence
- One Minute English (1970) oneminuteenglish.org/en/prescriptivist-descriptivist/