The Grammarphobia Blog

An octopus by any other name

Q: I know you’ve discussed the plural of “octopus” on the blog, but there’s one point I’ve never seen addressed anywhere. The word was adopted into English in the mid-18th century. So what did English speakers call the octopus before then?

A: While the creature itself has been known since ancient times, the word “octopus” didn’t exist until it was coined in the scientific Latin of 16th-century taxonomy. It was adopted into English two centuries later.

But long before the scientific term became common usage, the leggy mollusk had other names.

In ancient Greek, the octopus was called polypous or polupous (many-footed), a word  used by Pliny and Aristotle and later borrowed into Latin as polypus.

Beginning in the early 1500s, “polypus” was also used in English (as well as Dutch) as a name for the octopus.

Other nouns used in English over the centuries have included “polypus-fish,” “preke,” “poor-cuttle,” “pourcontrel,” “polyp,” “eight-armed cuttle,” “devilfish,” and “poulp”—a word with counterparts in French (poulpe), Italian (polpo), and Spanish (pulpo).

The first English example of “octopus” recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1758: “The Polypus, particularly so called, the Octopus, Preke, or Pour-contrel.”

But in fact the word was around much earlier, as we said, in scientific Latin.

For example, in De Piscibus Marinus (1554), a book about aquatic creatures, the 16th-century French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet gave the poulpe commun (common poulpe) the scientific name “polypus octopus.”

But the scientist who is probably most responsible for standardizing the name in common usage was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who used “octopus” in his monumental work on taxonomy, Systema Naturae (10th ed., 1758).

Linnaeus, who devised the now familiar system for classifying living things by giving them Latin names, established “Octopus” as the name for the genus and “Octopodia” (later “Octopoda”) as the name for the order of cephalopod mollusks with eight sucker-bearing arms.

In the 10th edition of his book, Linnaeus credits his student Fredrik Hasselquist for the name “Octopodia.” Hasselquist had used the term in letters written to Linnaeus from Smyrna in 1749, where he was doing field research. Linnaeus also credits his predecessor Rondelet for using “polypus octopus.” 

Now for the word’s etymology. “Octopus” combined ancient Greek terms meaning “eight” (okto) and “footed” (pous). If the word had actually existed in ancient Greek it would have been oktopous

(There was in fact a Greek word, oktapous, described in the revised 1940 edition of A Greek-English Lexicon, by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, as a “Scythian name for one who possessed two oxen and a cart.” We suppose this was a reference to the eight feet of the oxen. But we digress—back to the octopus!)

As we wrote in our 2010 post, there are three plural forms of the noun: “octopuses,” “octopi,” and “octopodes” (pronounced ok-TOP-uh-deez).

Most standard dictionaries accept the first two as equal variants. But usage authorities prefer “octopuses,” which Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls “the only acceptable plural in English.”

Fowler’s calls “octopodes,” the Greek plural, “pedantic,” and says “octopi” is “misconceived” and “a grievous mistake.” Another source, the Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, says “octopi” is “etymologically fallacious.”

So how did “octopi” come about?

It appears that early in its history, hasty Latinists assumed “octopus” should be pluralized with an -i ending, by analogy with such Latin singular/plural pairs as alumnus/alumni, syllabus/syllabi, and so on.

They were wrong.

The -us ending of octopus doesn’t put it into the same category as those other Latin nouns. The -us ending of octopus is merely part of the Greek element pous (from pod, for “foot”).

As the OED says, the plural form “octopi arises from apprehension of the final -us of the word as the grammatical ending of Latin second declension nouns.” (Latin nouns fall into categories called “declensions,” and this determines how they’re pluralized, made possessive, and so forth.)

As it turns out, a Latin noun borrowed from Greek and ending in a consonant  is treated as a third-declension Latin noun, according to several Latin grammars we consulted, as well as Judith E. Winston’s book Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure for Biologists (1999). Such third-declension Latin nouns are pluralized with -es, not -i.

Despite its questionable birth, dictionaries now recognize “octopi” as an equal variant of “octopuses.” In other words, both spellings are considered standard English.

In Google searches, the two get roughly the same number of hits, with “octopuses” slightly ahead (it’s preferred in scientific usage). The Greek-inspired plural form “octopodes,” labeled “rare” in the OED, is a distant third.

However, the earliest example we’ve found of the three words is the rare one, “octopodes,” which appears in Richard Chandler’s memoir Travels in Greece (1776).

In enumerating the foods of Athens, Chandler cites “the sea-polypus,” and adds: “The latter called by the Greeks octopodes, from the number of its feet.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “octopi” is from a June 1816 journal entry in Capt. James Kingston Tuckey’s Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire (published posthumously in 1818).

As his ship lies off the shore of western Africa near the mouth of the Zaire, Tuckey writes, “the towing net, however, again afforded us abundance of marine animals, amongst which were many of the paper nautilus (Argonauta sulcata), with the living animals, which, in contradiction to the opinion of the French naturalists, proved to be perfect Octopi.”

The earliest example of “octopuses” in the OED is from Rough Notes on Natural History in Norfolk and the Eastern Counties, an 1884 book by Hill M. Leathes that says “enormous octopuses existed on the western side of Panama, in the Pacific Ocean.”

Of the three plurals, “octopuses” may be the latecomer, but it’s the most natural. And it’s the one we prefer, naturally.

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