Q: I find your book Origins of the Specious intriguing, but I disagree that “octopi” is an example of a common misconception in English. “Octopi” is generally seen as objectionable. The plural “octopuses” is preferred in both the US and the UK.
A: We also prefer “octopuses” as the plural of “octopus,” but dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic now list “octopi” as an acceptable plural.
Check out The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a British reference.
Although “octopuses” is indeed more popular, “octopi” is alive and well among speakers of English as well as lexicographers.
Here’s a recent Google scorecard: “octopuses,” 400,000 hits, versus “octopi,” 262,000.
As we said in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions, many people believe “octopi” is classier than “octopuses.” This misconception dates back to the 19th century. (You might say it’s got legs.)
The singular “octopus” comes from Greek and means eight-footed. The original plural, “octopodes,” was Anglicized over the years to “octopuses.”
But in the mid-1800s some misguided Latinists tried to substitute the Latin plural ending pi for the Greek podes. It was an illegitimate idea that appealed to would-be pedants with weak classical educations.
The traditional English plural is actually “octopuses,” but the misbegotten “octopi” has been used by so many people for so long that it’s now considered an acceptable alternative.
If you want to be pedantic—and classically correct—opt for “octopodes.” As for us, we’re suckers for good old “octopuses.”
As Pat wrote in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, “In the oceans, wriggling by, / Are octopuses, not octopi.”
Check out our books about the English language