Behind the meme: Secrets of octopus intelligence

The little octopus picks up two halves of a coconut shell and carries them across the ocean floor with her suckers. Suddenly, startled, she drops the shell halves and dives inside.

Like a lot of you, I watched that video and wondered, "Just how smart are cephalopods, anyway?"

Turns out, on a scale of one to chimpanzee, octopuses are probably somewhere close to matching wits with a dog. We don't really know for sure. It's difficult to devise intelligence testing for an animal that is so clearly different from us.

That said, research does offer some tantalizing hints that we may need to rethink our anti-invertebrate biases. Octopuses have personalities. They can recognize and respond to individual humans. And there's even some evidence that they play.

It makes sense that the octopus would be a smart animal, once you understand where and how it lives.

Octopuses are basically balls of delicious protein. And, unlike their cousins, the mollusks, they don't have protective shells. So they're fair game for just about anything with an appetite.

At the same time, octopuses are also solitary creatures—they generally live alone from the time they're born, and don't have others to rely on for protection or to teach them the ways of the world. Stupid octopuses, or even octopuses that aren't quick on the uptake, get eaten.

The other pressure on octopus intelligence is environment, said Jennifer Mather, Ph.D., a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Mather has spent her career studying cephalopod intelligence. She describes the near-shore tropical waters, where octopuses first evolved, as an ecosystem even more complex than the tropical rain forest.

"There's lots of opportunities for food, and lots of opportunities to become food," she said. "And the octopuses have to figure that entire, complex system out for themselves."

The result is a naturally inquisitive creature that makes individual decisions about how to use resources. Mather calls octopuses "specializing generalists" when it comes to diet, meaning that they can eat a lot of different things, but each individual tends to pick a very distinct diet of personal favorites.

These simple facts about octopus behavior are relatively easy to collect. That isn't true of all cephalopods. Squid, for instance, are much more difficult to study because they have a hair-trigger flight reflex that sends them careening into the walls of a tank anytime you so much as flip on a light, said James Wood, Ph.D., director of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.


But this doesn't mean all octopus research is simple. Thornier questions—how octopuses learn, what their relative IQ is and whether they have anything we'd call consciousness—are very hard to pin down.

In these murky waters, everything is up for debate. One such subject: Tool use.

Neither Mather, nor Wood, was surprised to see an octopus using a coconut shell as a portable hidey-hole. But they both question whether it counts as tool use—and they question it for very different reasons.

Wood favors a conservative definition of tool use. By that standard—an animal using a solid object to solve an immediate problem, rather than just to provide defense against potential predators—there aren't any real clear examples of octopuses using tools. But, he said, defining tool use isn't a black or white issue. There's no single, official right answer.

Mather works from a different, but still valid, definition. She doesn't count the coconut shell as a tool, because the octopus isn't modifying the shell in any way, and isn't using it to alter other things in its environment.

But she does think octopuses use tools. In 1991, she documented octopuses collecting rocks and stacking them, outside the opening of a shelter, to form a protective fence. In fact, she said, the octopuses tended to do this before they went to sleep. That doesn't count as tool use to Wood, but with several scientifically sound definitions, there's room for interpretation.

Play is another hot topic. We think of play as silly time, but it's actually a sign of intelligence.

"You're making the thought transition from, 'what does this object do,' to, 'what can I do with this object'," Mather said.

Not everybody agrees octopuses play, but Mather thinks they do. She, and colleague Roland Anderson, Ph.D., set up a study where they put an octopus in tank and, periodically, gave it a plastic bottle. The first few times the bottle appeared, the octopus would examine it, and then cast it aside. But, sometimes, the octopus would try something different.

Two of the eight octopuses in the study eventually began a repetitive game. First, they moved to the far end of the tank, away from the outlet that brought in fresh water. Then, they used their natural ability to shoot water jets to push the bottle toward the outlet, where the flow of fresh water would bring it back. Push, back. Push, back.

"When one of them did it more than 20 times in a row, Roland called me and said, 'She's bouncing the ball!'," Mather said.

Oh, and that apocryphal story, about the octopus that breaks out of its tank at night, crosses the room, gets into a neighboring tank and proceeds to treat itself to a buffet dinner, before slinking back home before the aquarium keepers arrive in the morning? It's true.

"That's one of the urban myths that's for real. Stuff like that has happened lots of times," Wood said.

In fact, even in the wild it's not unusual to see octopuses pop up onto the land for short periods. They use the trick to escape predators and to hunt crabs in tidal pools.

"We ascribe stories like that to the octopus being sneaky, but that might be anthropomorphizing a bit," Wood said. "It just might be an octopus being an octopus."

Thumnail image courtesy Flickr user blakewest, via CC.


  1. I’ve seen an octopus at the Toronto Zoo clearly playing with pieces of Lego. No, he wasn’t building anything, but it was obvious play. And they do build gardens (thus the song). I can’t eat octopuses any longer.

    My partner (who is Greek) tells the truly horrible story of her childhood in Greece, where an uncle would toss live octopuses from the sea to the kids who “tenderized” them on the rocks. She can’t eat octopus any longer either.

    1. My mother-in-law lives in Greece, and shot a short video of a woman tenderizing an octopus on the rocks, with great gusto. At some point she sees my mother-in-law filming her, and grins into the camera before resuming her work. My mom-in-law posted this to Facebook, where all of her carnivorous relatives who never think for a second about what they eat were all appalled, and shamed her into taking it down.

      I for one wish I had posted footage of the worst type of cattle prisons, or of mechanized slaughterhouses. Really, dying in the hands of a human on a beach probably just isn’t as bad. Or at least not worse.

      For the record, I’m not a vegetarian, I just like to pay attention to what it is I’m eating.

    2. “My partner (who is Greek) tells the truly horrible story of her childhood in Greece, where an uncle would toss live octopuses from the sea to the kids who “tenderized” them on the rocks.”

      octopus meat is hard so you need to beat it repeatedly (like 40-50 times)if you are going to eat it properly and you do not want it to taste like rubber. it is not cruel, in the sense that the animal is already dead but it is a pain in the ass to do if you fish 4 or 5 big ones. totaly worth it tho’.

      btw in greek we say “i will beat you like an octopus” to mean i will beat the crap out of you.

  2. I, for one, welcome our new cephalopod overlords.

    Seriously, I love these guys, they are the niftiest creatures.I recall a story about one particular octopus that had a Mr. Potatohead doll it liked to play with. :)

    Here’s a kinda related video that’s well worth a look, David Gallo’s TED talk from a couple years back:

    Forward to about 4:20 and watch on to see another amazing octopus talent. :) (the whole video is worth watching, but the segment I’m suggesting made my jaw hit the floor).

  3. I’m an unapologetic carnivore and I have made the decision to not each octopus anymore based on this video and all the other reports of octopodian intelligence.

    Now, if I could just man up and stop eating pork. But bacon tastes goooood!

  4. Talia, consider jaw dropped.

    After hearing about the octopus opening a water valve at the Santa Monica aquarium to flood the lab – for fun – I’ve completely removed cephalopods from the potential food list. To be perfectly flush, I don’t eat anything with legs so it wasn’t really on the list to begin with due to the great number of appendages.

    1. There is no logical way to choose our food. If you’re an omnivore and you cannot eat, say, dogs or cats, but can eat a pig which is much smarter, than you have a problem. Likewise, not eating octopuses but eating tuna because of apparent intelligence is wrong and I think we all admit that. On the other side, I’m sure meat-eaters can gleefully point out the contradictions and hypocrisy of veggies and vegans. But there you have it.

      Humans are full of contradictions. I eat beef, pork, lamb and fish. I’ve tried horse but would never go out of my way to eat it again. The thought of eating dog or cat gives me the same revulsion as cannibalism. I’ve watched with awe the intelligence of octopuses and that’s totally put me off octopus as food. None of this makes sense. Even the food-chain arguments don’t really hold up: it’s not like most of us ever hunt for our food. The biggest creature I’ve ever killed is a centipede. I can’t imagine shooting a deer. Why is one privileged?

      1. Well, I think it’s pretty logical to eat the things that kept my direct ancestors healthy. For example, wild game, fish and mollusks, fruit, nuts and berries, etc. I still don’t see how intelligence enters into it, it’s not in any way connected. Some of my best friends aren’t detectably intelligent at all.

        I can’t imagine shooting a deer. Why is one privileged?

        Whatever happens
        we have got
        the Maxim gun
        and they have not.

      2. Vegan has to be the way of eating with the least need for rationalization or justification and the least amount of contradiction involved.

        1. Vegan has to be the way of eating with the least need for rationalization or justification and the least amount of contradiction involved.

          Maybe somewhere there’s a vegan who recognises that his or her choices are arbitrarily based on a particular kind of squeamishness, rather than a nonexistent universal moral principle that inexplicably rates plants lower than animals, but I doubt it.

          1. It’s actually based on the common sense observation that killing animals causes suffering, the scientific knowledge that it isn’t something that it is necessary for humans to do, and a system of ethics in which it is preferable not to cause suffering.

            Actually, the practice of Ahimsa in the Jain religion does place humans above other animals by recognizing that humans are capable of making choices that other animals are not capable of making.

      3. There is no logical way to choose our food. If you’re an omnivore and you cannot eat, say, dogs or cats, but can eat a pig which is much smarter, than you have a problem. Likewise, not eating octopuses but eating tuna because of apparent intelligence is wrong and I think we all admit that. On the other side, I’m sure meat-eaters can gleefully point out the contradictions and hypocrisy of veggies and vegans. But there you have it.

        I’ll agree that there’s no logical way to choose food. In my belief system, everything alive has a soul — even plants — so it’s sort of pointless to make an arbitrary choice of “plants good, animals bad.” That said, I find your scenarios to be strange. I know you’re trying to create a compare-and-contrast set, but it’s the editorial asides that confuse me. Can’t eat cats and dogs but can eat the smarter pigs = “you have a problem.” Maybe you mean the problem is the apparent hypocrisy of choosing food by intelligence, but that wasn’t clear here. If instead you meant that the problem was the apparent issue of an omnivore not being able to eat truly anything, well, that is a problem if you’re starving and all you have is dog. But in your next comparison, you fall right into the “X is wrong and I think we all admit that [aka I think we all agree]” rhetorical trick. Maybe that statement doesn’t seem very presumptuous to you, but it does to me.

        The fact is that different groups of people have food aversions for various reasons. Americans won’t eat horse meat, by and large, while it’s still sold in Europe. We Americans value horses for many reasons (symbolic, cultural heritage, etc.), and I believe that aversion isn’t so different from, say, certain religious dietary laws. Similar arguments can be made over the Western aversion to eating dogs.

        Over the last couple years, I’ve developed an interest in trying human flesh, but I know that there’s no way I’d ever be able to do so in the US of A. Call it a curiosity thing. Cultural taboos against cannibalism are very strong, and like cultural aversions to eating certain other animals, have very little to do with logic. (The main argument against cannibalism is the transmission of certain prion diseases, though the same argument could be made against eating beef.)

        An aside in regard to Mitch: I think many cultures are perfectly OK with causing suffering, as long as it’s not to one’s own kind (whether “kind” is defined by nationality, species, religious persuasion, or what have you). Systems of ethics that emphasize not causing harm or suffering are great, but the fact is that merely existing causes some degree of harm or suffering to other beings on this planet — even if that being is just a philodendron that you killed accidentally. To me, that’s where the whole argument in favor of veganism (as you’ve relayed it) breaks down.

        Then there’s the whole side argument of what qualifies as suffering, and how some people who profess veganism or vegetarianism for ethical reasons would be perfectly OK causing other human beings to suffer in ways that aren’t necessarily mortally dire but nonetheless objectionable. I guess what I’m saying is, human beings suck, and I have gotten to the point where I am suspicious of anyone who professes some kind of moral superiority based on an arbitrary metric (diet, choice of religion, etc.).

        1. (The main argument against cannibalism is the transmission of certain prion diseases, though the same argument could be made against eating beef.)

          Not just prions, but all sorts of weird viruses get spread that way. There’s an important difference from beef, where you’ll pick up a cow disease here and there: every single pathogen in human meat is capable of using you as a host. Please eat carefully.

  5. I recall reading about an Octopus at an aquarium in Florida that was getting out of its tank, climbing in the lobster tank, taking lobsters, eating them, and hiding the remains. I cant seem to find an extremely reputable source on the net.

  6. “Turns out, on a scale of one to chimpanzee, octopuses are probably somewhere close to matching wits with a dog”

    Interesting numbering system — is one the only digit?

    1. The interesting thing about the numbering system is that it seems to go from 0 to “dog” to somewhere beyond that.

      We can call it a dogirithmic scale.


  7. new research suggests that dogs are a lot smarter than we perhaps thought. Dogs unlike most primates have evolved of the aeons with us, so are more in tune with us, responding and picking up far more of our visual clues.

  8. “Turns out, on a scale of one to chimpanzee, octopuses are probably somewhere close to matching wits with a dog”

    Since octopi use base 8, they think we’re just inflating our IQ scores.

    Also, I understand that they read Lovecraft for the romantic comedy.

  9. Anti-invertebrate bias? Speak for yourself!

    If you are going to eat animal protein, cephalopod is not a bad choice. It is very good for you. And the squid fishery is not as damaging to ecosystems as many other fisheries.

    The cephalopod strategy is to grow fast, fast, fast, reach maturity in just a few years, reproduce with great fecundity, then die. In laboratory conditions, their lives have been prolonged by the surgical removal of their gonads. But otherwise, they live perhaps all of three years. If they lasted longer than that, I imagine they’d be our tentacled overlords.

    However charming and clever that octopod is, it is not going to last too long anyway. If the shoe were on the other foot, it might well eat me. Not like octopus are grazing on algae. They catch and consume other animals.

    I’ll let vegans & their ilk give me a hard time about my eating habits under one condition; that they have bred and promise to never do so. Otherwise, STFU.

  10. Just remember, if you see one coming towards you with three coconut shells and a little ball, don’t give it any money. It’s a scam.

  11. I love this octopus story about MIT cognitive scientist Jerome Lettivn (husband of Maggie, of Maggie and the Beautiful Machine fame) and his son’s octopus. The below is copied from this wikipedia link:

    While working in the Marine Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, he had a 30 foot long room in which octopus holding tanks were kept, with fine mesh metal screens to keep them from escaping. One tank, at the far end, held his youngest son Jonathan’s pet octopus named juvenile delinquent (JD).[7] One day he teased JD with a stick. The next morning, his son and he came to the door and noticed a puddle under the door. Fearing the worst (broken tanks), he opened the door, and was greeted by a blast of water in his face (but not his son’s face). From across the room, and through the screen, JD had perfect aim, after which he jetted to the bottom of the tank, inked it up, and hid for the rest of the day. Still confused about the water under the door, Jerry looked at the back of the door and saw a spot of water at the height of his face. JD had been practicing for revenge. From this and other experiences, Jerry concluded that octopodes are highly intelligent, and from that time on he never ate octopus again, out of respect for octopodes as colleagues.

  12. In college, I remember hearing this tale of a guy with a pet octopus. He has a feeder tank of fish about ten feet away. Each time he comes home, there’s another fish gone from the feeder tank. He scolds his roommate: “Stop overfeeding the octopus!” “I’m not feeding it at all!” his roommate protests. The guy finally realizes, from the wet sucker marks on the floor, that the octopus has learned how to open the lid on its own tank, climb down to the floor, squiddle across ten feet to the other tank, steals a fish from that tank, heads back home.

    1. What he didn’t realize, though, is that it wasn’t his roommate who was doing his homework for him.

  13. Some intelligence, and usefully dexterous “hands”, are a pretty powerful combination.

    I don’t object to eating pork, and pigs are considered to be on about the same intelligence level as dogs. There are pet animals, working animals, and food animals (among other categories), and sometimes the categories overlap. “Charismatic megafauna”, certainly, but it’s really hard to find a place to draw a clean line. I mostly side with PETA — that is, People for Eating Tasty Animals.

    The traditional method of killing octopi (severing a particular ganglion) is considered reasonably humane, but I don’t know how often modern fishermen pay that kind of attention to each animal.

    I’m more nervous about eating octopi simply because we’re gathering them from the wild but really have No Idea how badly we’re damaging the population. I do consider them tasty, but I limit my intake; for the most part I stick with the sessile molluscs.

    Now, if someone can figure out how to efficiently (and safely) harvest those Red Devil squid that have been booming in the Pacific… they seem to need culling. We knocked out their competition, we may have knocked out their predators, and they’re rapidly expanding into the top predator niche.

  14. Octopuses actually ARE mollusks, but ones lacking shells or having only a small bit of shell, inside the body. Sort of like slugs, which are also mollusks.

  15. I can’t figure out how to link directly to the video, but if you type “octo” in the search box you can get to the Octo-Thief video, which actually shows a lab octopus getting out of its cage, going to the crab box, and having a snack.

    They also built an obstacle course for octopi (octopuses?), which is WAY Cthulhian.

  16. I too must chime in as an octopus fan. I am a past (and hopefully future) aquarist who has always wanted to keep a pet octopus. The literature is full of stories about what wonderfully clever little escape artists they are! I remember one story of a man transporting an octopus in a wicker basket whilst riding the bus…until he heard a woman screaming at the back of the bus! I don’t know if it’s true, but it is plausible.

    1. The basket story is certainly plausible. It has been reported that an octopus can squeeze itself through an opening not much larger than its beak.

      “Try that, you vertebrate snobs!”

  17. What d’ya expect? They’re brains with arms.

    Or do they look like scrotums with arms? Shit, now I am confused.

  18. A friend of mine years ago spoke of a heroic octopus that almost made it’s escape from a hot pot in Korea. We are beasts at times.

  19. What’s so ethical about being vegan or vegetarian? Pesticides & mechanised harvesting kill animals, and clearing land for farming destroys habitat and kills even more. Many of the processed vegan foods, especially meat and dairy substitutes, create toxic byproducts during production. If you really want to eat ethically, grow your own food, (and even keep chickens etc). It’s the only way to really monitor how your food is produced.

    1. “What’s so ethical about being vegan or vegetarian? Pesticides & mechanised harvesting kill animals, and clearing land for farming destroys habitat and kills even more. Many of the processed vegan foods, especially meat and dairy substitutes, create toxic byproducts during production. If you really want to eat ethically, grow your own food, (and even keep chickens etc). It’s the only way to really monitor how your food is produced.”

      Vegans also avoid the factory farming that brings about these problems. Some may or may not be squeamish about killing certain vermin, it depends on the person. Vegan != Jainist.

      Myself, I’m not Vegan but the idiots who feel threatened by the patchoulli beanpole set are FAR more annoying than the mass of vegans. It is hard to go on a date or business meeting with them unless you’re in a cluster of good food, though.

  20. I wonder how much octopus intelligence has to do with their lack of shells, as opposed to the need to control their tentacles or eyes. There is still a shelled cephalopod in the world, the pearly nautilus – how smart is it? Or even squid for that matter?

    (And yes, they are all mollusks. In fact, mollusk originally meant “soft”, and the shelled ones were added later).

    1. I’m not sure why so many people are sticklers about this word without paying attention to others like it, but the reasoning you give is wrong.

      You see, “octopus” comes from Greek originally, but the reason it isn’t “oktopous” is because we’re using the Latin form of the word. So it’s not actually required to use the Greek plural, and for most biological names we don’t. For instance we say “tyrannosaurs” or maybe “tyrannosauri”, not “tyrannosauroi”.

      Depending on the declension, the Latin plural might be “octopi”, “octopodes”, “octopoda”, or “octopus”. Looking at the Greek it should probably be one of the middle two. However, the closely related Greek-made-Latin word “polypus” almost always becomes “polypi”, going back at least as far as Pliny the Elder.

      All in all, I don’t think the answer is obvious enough to declare one or the other correct. So please, just let everyone use whichever plural they like best, and not worry about over-simplified recommendations.

      1. @chenille: Yes, it came into English from Greek via Latin. However, the plural of “octopus” in Latin is not “octopi” but “octopodes” (the same as the Greek plural). That’s because it’s not a second declension noun in Latin, but a third declension noun.

        So, it’s not simply a matter of choosing either the English, Greek, or Latin plural form. “Octopi” is not the correct plural form, even in Latin. “Octopi” is pseudo-Latin.

        And, yes, I’ll freely admit that it’s a bit pedantic to be a stickler about such things. But, from my experience, anytime the subject of octopuses comes up, someone always asks what the correct plural form of the word is (as several previous commenters have done here). So it’s useful to know what the correct plural forms are (“octopedes” in Greek and Latin, and “octopuses” in English), and why the pseudo-Latin form (“octopi”) is considered incorrect.

        1. Oops. Typo. That should have been “octopodes” not “octopedes”. (I think “octopedes” are the children of Octomom.)

        2. What I’m not clear on is why it has to be regarded as 3rd declension. As I said, “polypus” has been 2nd declension since ancient times, when it was also the name for octopus. What makes it wrong to consider “octopi” an alternate Latin plural, formed by analogy with “polypi”?

  21. FYI: The correct plural of “octopus” is “octopodes”, though “octopuses” is considered acceptable. However, “octopi” is simply wrong. (The word “octopus” comes from Greek, not Latin; and the pluralization rule that changes -us to -i is Latin, not Greek.)


    Anyway, octopodes are cool.

  22. I’m aware that octopi is officially wrong. It’s colloquially common, so I decided it was OK to be a bit sloppy. This isn’t exactly a scientific journal, though (as you’ve just demonstrated) it is peer-reviewed.

  23. My accidental discovery of the week: Play the above clip while listening to any random Benny Goodman song. You’ll be glad you did.

  24. @chenille: Ah, I see your problem. You’re proceeding from the assumption that the rules of language are supposed to make logical sense. ;-)

    To be honest, I don’t know why “octopus” is treated as third declension rather than second declension in Latin. It just is.

    It’s kinda like asking why it’s wrong to say “foots” instead of “feet” as the plural of “foot”; or why the plural of “root” is “roots” and not “reet”. There’s no logical reason. That’s just the way it is.

    In Latin, as in Greek, Russian, and other inflected languages, each word has its own particular declension, and can only be declined that specific way. If you use the wrong declension you end up with nonsense plurals that would sound just as silly to speakers of those languages as “foots”, “reet”, and “mooses” sound to English speakers.

  25. Sure, I’m willing to accept languages as being whatever their speakers use, but then you have to stick with that. You can’t say that “octopodes” is the correct plural purely because it’s what Latin found natural, and ignore that it sounds silly and unnatural to most speakers of English. We prefer “octopi” and “octopuses”, whether or not that makes logical sense.

  26. @sapere_aude:

    “It’s kinda like asking why it’s wrong to say “foots” instead of “feet” as the plural of “foot”; or why the plural of “root” is “roots” and not “reet”. There’s no logical reason. That’s just the way it is.”

    I’d hardly say there’s no logical reason, you just need to understand all the factors involved. The style of nouns that change their interior vowel sounds to indicate plurality do so because that was once the way the language operated at some previous date (i.e. before Old English, maybe so far back as proto-indo-european). Words that are most commonly used change more slowly than less common words. The Old English “fot”/”fet” has thus been more resistant to the “s” pluralization than the perhaps less commonly used root (which was “rot”/”rotas”, if I recall rightly, but it is late). Sometimes even commonly used words change over time — take the “en” plural: for hundreds of years the plural of “brother” was “brethren” — now it’s as equally acceptable to use “brethren” as it is “brothers”. The reasons behind the changes in language are many, and they are varied, but they are not inexplicable, and are certainly anything but illogical.

    I mean hell, usage dictates the rules anyway. We only have the singular “cherry” because when someone brought the french “cerises” into english they thought it was plural and singularized it.

    So if octopuses falls prey to the pseudo-latinate octopi (just as cactuses seems to have lost to cacti), then so be it — language evolution has its own peculiar logic.

    Plus honestly? Nobody’s going to say octopodes.

  27. must say I am continually amused by the ongoing debate as to the plural form of octopus.

    Being that their sense of mischief seems abject, seems to me that they, were their intellect boosted enough to comprehend, would certainly enjoy the ongoing conflict. They just seem like that kinda being.

  28. And at Wikipedia: “Terminology
    The term octopus, pronounced /ˈɒktÉ™pÊŠs/, is from Greek ὀκτάπους (oktapous), “eight-footed”,[30][31] with plural forms: octopuses /ˈɒktÉ™pÊŠsɪz/, octopi /ˈɒktÉ™paɪ/, or octopodes /É’kˈtÉ’pÉ™diːz/. Currently, octopuses is the most common form in the US as well as the UK; octopodes is rare, and octopi is often objectionable.[32]

    The Oxford English Dictionary (2008 Draft Revision[33]) lists octopuses, octopi and octopodes (in that order); it labels octopodes “rare”, and notes that octopi derives from the “apprehension” that octōpÅ«s is a second declension Latin noun, though it is not. It is a Latinization of Greek third-declension masculine oktṓpous (ὀκτώπους, ‘eight-foot’), plural oktṓpodes (ὀκτώποδες). If the word were native to Latin, it would be octōpÄ“s, plural octōpedes, after the pattern of pÄ“s (‘foot’), plural pedÄ“s, analogous to “Centipede”[34]. The actual Latin word for octopus and other similar species is polypus, from Greek polýpous (πολύπους, ‘many-foot’); usually the inaccurate plural polypÄ« is used instead of polypodÄ“s.

    In modern Greek, the word is khtapódi (χταπόδι), plural khtapódia (χταπόδια), from Medieval oktapódion (ὀκταπόδιον), equivalent to Classical oktápous (ὀκτάπους), variant of oktṓpous.

    Chambers 21st Century Dictionary[35] and the Compact Oxford Dictionary[36] list only octopuses, although the latter notes that octopodes is “still occasionally used”; the British National Corpus has 29 instances of octopuses, 11 of octopi and 4 of octopodes. Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary lists octopuses and octopi, in that order; Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists octopuses, octopi and octopodes (in that order).

    Fowler’s Modern English Usage states that “the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses,” and that octopi is misconceived and octopodes pedantic.

    The term octopod (plural octopods or octopodes) is taken from the taxonomic order Octopoda but has no classical equivalent. The collective form octopus is usually reserved for animals consumed for food.” ‘Nuf said!

  29. @chenille: It’s important not to confuse technical correctness with actual common usage; or to assume that that you ought to feel obligated to follow the rules even when they don’t make sense. I was making an argument about technical correctness; not about which word you, personally, ought to prefer. Technically, “octopi” is simply incorrect. It’s bad English; and it’s bad Latin. But it’s commonly used, nonetheless; and a lot of people seem to prefer it over both “octopodes” (the proper Greek form) and “octopuses” (the proper anglicized form). Which form you choose to use is up to you, of course. Even if you choose to use the technically incorrect “octopi” you’ll still get your meaning across. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still technically incorrect.

    @oohShiny: I didn’t mean to imply that there was no intelligible explanation for why we say “feet” instead of “foots”. I simply meant that there is no logically consistent set of rules that tells us exactly when we are supposed to use irregular plural forms rather than regular plural forms in English. We simply have to learn by rote which words take irregular plurals, and what the irregular plural forms are.

    1. I was making an argument about technical correctness; not about which word you, personally, ought to prefer.

      I’d be willing to go with that, too. I just don’t like the argument that “octopi” is technically incorrect English simply because “octopodes” was common usage in Latin. In that case I’d rather go with the example of “polypi”, which is a lot older.

      As far as that goes, the passage efergus3 says that “polypi” is inaccurate, in which case I’ll buy that “octopi” is too. But then is it really fair to call something simply incorrect and false Latin, when the rule is so subtle that everyone from Pliny to Linnaeus (who both treat polypus as 2nd declension) gets it wrong?

      1. Well, I’ll certainly concede that reading these words as second declension instead of third declension is a common mistake, an honest mistake, a very easy mistake to make, and a forgivable mistake. But I won’t go quite so far as to conclude that, because so many people have made this particular mistake over the centuries, we shouldn’t treat it as a mistake at all.

        1. Not just “so many people”. In the end, I’m just more comfortable saying there’s more than one acceptable version, than correcting Pliny on Latin. I suppose your mileage may vary.

          @freshacconci: I’m stuck at my computer anyways. At least we seem to be enjoying it more than you. :)

    2. When discussing language use, don’t forget the “snoot” factor: to me (and, I suspect, to many others) “octopusses” (yes, I know) just sounds funny! Consequently I have assumed for years that “octopi” had to be correct simply because it has the ring of “scientific correctness” — though I’m quite in error, as it turns out. I thought that “octopuses” was the made-up plural created by the youngster who says “feets” for the fun of it. Learn something new every day!

  30. I love how this thread has degenerated into the venerable “what’s the plural of octopus?” discussion. You realize any newbies to boingboing have now run screaming? Or at the very least had their preconceived notions of boingers confirmed.

    To paraphrase Creem circa 1985: while you took the time to argue all this, much better looking people were getting laid.

    And why don’t we just use a Homeresque solution: octopuseses.

  31. @sapere_aude: logically consistent set of rules? then no. heh. DEFINITELY no. The whole point of English seems to be its absorption of the sets of rules from every other language it’s ever come into contact with.

  32. I have a friend that said that if she had unlimited funding for a scientific budget, she’d try to breed a sapient cephalopod.

    However, what I’ve learned here makes that sound like not such a good idea. Since they are solitary creatures, who’s to say they have a strong enough empathy to coexist with each other, or even humans?

  33. Great article! Does anyone happen to know where the small knitted octopus image comes from? I would love to see more pics of that thing, love the look of it.

    Please let me know!

    circa86 at gmail dot com

  34. I designed a “don’t eat things as smart as you” octopus shirt at cafepress…..but would just as soon see people make and wear their own to spread the word.

    creativedisease dot com

  35. Back to the topic at hand…

    I remember watching a TV show with an experiment involving more than one octopus; I think the show might have been Nature on PBS. Several octopus were placed in tanks and each was given a closed jar with a crab inside. Some of the octopus were able to figure out the lid could be unscrewed and others couldn’t. A tank with a octopus who knew how to unscrew a jar was pushed next to a a tank with an octopus that didn’t so that they could both see each other. When a jar with a crab was dropped into each tank, the octopus who didn’t know how to open the jar saw the other octopus opening the jar. It rushed over to the side, pressed itself to the glass and watched intently. After seeing the jar could be unscrewed it immediately returned to its own jar and opened the lid. That’s learning from observing others: behavior that requires a high level of intelligence.

    Still my favorite cephalopod is the cuttlefish. A weird, profoundly intelligent creature whose ability to change color is so far beyond that of a gecko it’s like comparing the graphics from the original Nintendo Entertainment System to that of a Playstation 3.

  36. This makes me remember Crichton’s research when a character on his novel Sphere comments on how intelligent Octopuses are, comparing them with the relatively dumber squid. I guess there remains so much to learn about this interesting creature.

  37. I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Ms. Koerth-Baker’s criteria for expected intelligence being 1) living in a complex environment and 2) being delicious. After all, shrimp are delicious and live in the exact same environment.

    Octopuses have two attributes that, to me at least, seem to make their intelligence a surprise: 1) extremely short lifespan, and 2) solitary lives.

    How many relatively smart animals have these two qualities? Most animals we tend to consider smart don’t even have one of them.

  38. i want to be an octopus when i grow up!

    …failing that, i will accept in the next life as my second choice.

  39. Thanks to all commenting here (including the lengthy plurality debate). It’s been one of the best comment strings I’ve read in quite a while.

    And I think Cuttlefish may be smarter than Octopodes. There was a time when I stopped eating Calamari … but omg … if you had the Calamari at “F Street Station” here in Anchorage you’d fail to live up to such a pledge as well.

  40. Anonymous #71: How about “Don’t eat creatures you have a social relationship with?” What makes “pets” different isn’t their intelligence or even their species as such — it’s the relationship we have with them.

    As far as octopi: consider that as a high-r and (nominally) solitary species, they’d probably consider being eaten by humans as no better or worse than getting nabbed by a passing shark.

    It’s worth noting that dogs have traditionally had a somewhat dubious position — even in many societies where they were valued partners, they were also the emergency food supply. Of course, these were societies where that was a realistic hazard, with IIRC most or all being non-agricultural.

  41. I too have vowed not to eat intelligent octopuses any more. But don’t feel bad for me! Now that I have realised that it is intelligence that gives an entity rights I shall be supplementing my diet with small children, disabled people and certain bloggers.

  42. Meh.

    I don’t disagree with their findings, but I disagree that this means anything to my eating them.

    If animals were universally precluded from being eaten(by all other animals) based on intelligence that intelligence would drop, due to being less necessary.

    I’m going to eat dolphin(the mammal) this summer, and the only reason I’m limiting myself to one meal of it is the fact that they’re apex ocean predators, and are fairly high in mercury.

    I say that if it’s sustainable, eat it. A diet rich in dolphin is a bad idea, health-wise, but the same can be said of many animals.

    Cows in non-europeanised countries (say African nations or India) are fairly intelligent. We’ve bred them to be stupid.
    No one knows when chickens were first domesticated, but for the most part they’re unable to survive on their own.
    A dog cannot live without the assistance from humans. A feral dog will eat garbage and/or slowly deteriorate in health. It won’t hunt; at least not enough to survive.

    Is that more or less ethical than being part of the natural selection of a species?

  43. Pigs are pretty smart — surely brighter than an octopus.

    Should I stop eating delicious, wonderful bacon?

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