Octopuses? Octopi? Octopodes?

What's the plural of octopus? Octopuses? Octopi? Octopodes? According to this video by Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper, all three are technically correct. Video link.

(via Jen Phillips' Twitter)


  1. This is spectacular! I’m changing the word I was using for plural octopus to octopodes, just so I can repeat this spiel at a moments’ notice.

    And even more funny, the spell check built into Firefox wants me to correct octopodes to octopuses.

  2. I personally have been using “octoplurals” for the better part of 3 years now because it’s just plain fun to say.

  3. By the way, thank you Lisa for giving me something new to point to when people lecture me about how saying “octopi” is dead wrong, making me want to use it exclusively in their presence. Damn octopedants! Or would that be octopurists? :-)

    1. Octopi is ‘dead wrong’. Did you not watch the video?

      You can use it, but the reason why you cannot correct anyone on grammatical conjugation is because you are using a Latin ending for a Greek word.

      Lisa’s description that all three words are ‘technically correct’ is actually false. Octopi was correct up until the moment it was revealed the origin of the word was not Latin.

      Thus, you are either ‘dead wrong’ or are not among the ‘smarter grammarians’ who adhere to the Greek etymology.

      1. Fair enough, but she did say I can continue to use it, as long as I don’t correct people who say “octopuses.” Also, was your response to mine typed in a British accent? ;-)

  4. Hot!

    But the realization that an actual editor at Merriam-Webster is easily ten years younger than I am (as opposed to the expected 30 years older) is unbelievably deflating.

    Sigh. I might as well just climb into the box now.

  5. The same presumably applies to platypuses (platypi, platypodes), and for the same reasons.

    Just remember always to look both ways when you cross the road, so that you aren’t run over by any bi (or bodes).

    1. According to the Australian Platypus Conservancy, the preferred plural of “platypus” is simply “platypus”.

      That said, I still like using “platypi” because it simply sounds neat. But I might give “platypodes” a chance.

  6. perhaps the term “octoplus” or “octo+” could serve the need. Old school octipi user, but willing to embrace alternate defintions.

  7. Would it be too pedantic to point out that “cephalopod” comes from the Greek “kephalos” (spelt with kappa rather than sigma) and so should in fact be pronounced with a hard “c”

      1. I’ve heard a young Greek woman hang up the phone with a bang and shout “Skatakephalos!”

    1. After reading your comment, I was instantly reminded of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

    2. It would be wrong. Almost all our biological names are Greek rendered into Latin, and pronounced according to special Latin-made-English rules.

      The plurals are actually Latin too; octopodes is a Latin 3rd declension plural, based on the Greek. Not everything changes from -us to -i: the plural of fructus is fructus.

  8. And the world is full of would-be Oedipodes. I was in a maze of twisty passages and smelled a wumpus—oh no! It was several wumpodes! Blister samples from different people are just podes.

    Nuts. I’m out. I’m going to go play with my neighbor’s podessycat.

  9. Not quite out! Our rumpus room was the venue for many rumpodes! The State University of New York has many campodes!

    1. Ah, well there’s your problem with Lego. It’s Lego; not ‘legos’. I’m sure everyone here knows the origin of the brand name, so I won’t drone on about that. But yes, it’s Lego. A Lego brick. Some Lego. Lots and lots of Lego.

      But anyway, back to the octopus. Very informative video. I shall use ‘octopuses’.

  10. If I ever used the word “Octopodes” in conversation I’d be defining myself as a twit.

    If I used it here I’d be a net-twit.

  11. There are some minor issues with what she says. Some English words taken from other languages have pretty much always used the Latin plural. Classic example is alumnus. Alumnuses is just wrong. So her claim that that English always uses English plurals of adopted words is wrong. Since I’m more or less a descriptivist when it comes to language, I think she’s still correct. And people who make the “correction” to octopi are demonstrating massive Dunning-Kruger effect in a hilarious way.

    (I do have one irrational pet peeve concerning pluralization. The correct plural of lemma is lemmata. I know that my insistence on this is irrational.)

  12. As a word nerd, this made my day. Super cute girl talking about etymologies and spelling rules… yowza!

    Watch her other videos about slang and “I before E”

  13. Whilst she is correct, I wonder if we should really trust a North American to teach us how to speak English considering how much they have bastardised it in the past. (and that’s pronounced barstard btw not basstid)

    Why do they pronounce Puma (poomah) and Tuna (toonah) but they don’t pronounce Human (hoomahn) and don’t even get me started about “I could care less” and “lookit”.

    Perhaps they should stick at what they do best, making hotdogs and movies with explosions.

    1. I admit that I fulfill your stereotype regarding the word “tuna,” but not the rest of it. :-P

    2. My friend, as an ~American~ ; it is not about how right one is; but how loud one can be. . .

      “I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.” -Homer Simpson

      That being said: octopodes right or not sounds silly. And if y’all are so smart: what’s the collective noun? “That sure is a cavalcade of cephalopods!” An organization of octopusseses? A tangle? A suction?

      Feh. “Daaamn Dawg! Lookit all dem squids yo!” Works for me.

    3. Criticizing North Americans for “bastardizing” English is ridiculous. Language is a living thing that changes with time and with distance. All of our languages everywhere are bastardized forms of what came before.

      1. I wonder how many people in Spain would accuse Mexicans (also from North America) of bastardizing their language.

        1. Haven’t you heard? Brazilian Portuguese is (sort of) the official Portuguese now. Much bitterness and recrimination in the motherland.

          1. Heh! Actually, it occurred to me after I sent my comment that the answer might be “quite a few.”

      2. Criticising (note the S) language changes is not ridiculous it’s also a natural part of the “language changes get over it” cliché you so cling to, if there were no criticism of these changes, language would degrade rather than simply change.

        But if you’d like us all to throw away our apostrophes and resort to a combination of baby talk slang and txt-speak then go ahead repeat your mantra.

        Good luck with that.

        1. If you insist on being that smug about language, you should probably proofread your own comments.

          1. The sad thing is I did, and I don’t know what is wrong with what I wrote, hangs head in shame.

            But my point is no less valid, you’re allowed to criticise language, you don’t just have to shrug your shoulders at whatever lingual blasphemy is being displayed and say “well language changes” surely that is a slippery slope.

          2. Actually, Michael, after considering the common mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” mentioned in the above comment, I have to admit you have a point. I cringe when I hear that.

        2. “Criticising” is an odd thing to insist on. “Criticize” is actually the older spelling; why the z was lost I’m not sure, but this is one of the rare cases where the Americans have maintained the traditional form and the British have not.

        3. “language would degrade”

          Ugh. One man’s “degraded language” is another man’s “freedom fighter”, or something like that. You know what I mean. Maybe you could say something funny and Anglo-centric about “civilization” next.

          1. One man’s “degraded language” is another man’s “freedom fighter”, or something like that.

            If the second has a right to his opinion, surely the first does too, right? Descriptivism is funny that way.

    4. Whilst she is correct, I wonder if we should really trust a North American to teach us how to speak English considering how much they have bastardised it in the past.

      Actually, for a great many of the spelling variants, it is the American form that retains the older spelling, while the British has “bastardised” it.

      The example of criticise/criticize was already brought up be someone above (and note that the OED actually lists “criticize” first), but there are many similar examples. “Defense” and “offense” are the older Anglo-French spellings, the British then changed them to “defence” and “offence,” and likewise for most se/ce differences. “Gray” is the older spelling, but the British changed it to “grey” in the 20th century.

      Of course, when one brings up this line af argument, most British people immediately switch from saying “American English is bastardised” to saying “British English is more modern and evolved.” Sure, fine. I could care less.

      1. I acquiesce, things are not so hard and fast as I imagined, but surely some of these people are wrong?

        I mean surely they can’t all be right just because “language changes”

        aren’t some of them philistines and aren’t I some kind of linguistic stone gnome?

  14. “He who is forewarned is forearmed!”

    “four armed? Thats half an octopus, who wants to be that?”

  15. Pretty much. Take the pronunciation of the word “nuclear” as an example. From Merriam-Webster:

    Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.

    As their FAQ entry about it notes, “spoken language is primary, not written language.”

  16. (#53 was meant to be a reply to comment #47, in which Daemon wrote, “If enough people say it, it’s correct. That’s how language works.”)

  17. Thanks for clarifying that. Though I am not British, I am drawn towards saying “octopodes” when I spot some of my favorite animals, it just sounds fancy and I like long foreign words. :)

    Did it actually occur to anyone that it is really hard to find 3+ octopodes, or, an octosplosion/octoparty? I understand that especially the male specimen are sort of rogues and prefer to be alone except when mating (well, that’s new ^^). Putting two males in a tank together is a bad idea, too. So one might not have to be embarassed after all, for you will see no “school” of octopodes passing by or whatever.

  18. I thought it was octopoda.

    Actually, I remember this as a plot point from an Orson Scott Card story I read around 16 years ago. Why do I remember that? I don’t know.

  19. “Whilst she is correct, I wonder if we should really trust a North American to teach us how to speak English considering how much they have bastardised it in the past.”

    Or you could say “Whilst she is correct, I wonder how provincial we should make ourselves look by considering one regional variant of the language more official than others.”

    Dude, it’s language. Your mileage may vary, but in general, *usage trumps pedantry*.

  20. My general theory is that an “oo” sounds needs to be bodged into the language wherever possible.

    Octopus – Octopoo
    Platypus – Platypoo
    Amoeba – Amooboo

  21. octopus is a third declension Latin noun, based on the Greek noun “ὀκτώπους” (oktopous), which has “ὀκτώποδες” (oktopodes) as its nominative plural form. The Latin noun is of modern scientific origins (courtesy of Linnaeus) and thus follows the modern rules for forming Latin words from Greek words. Those rules put it into Latin’s 3rd declension, which has nominative plurals in “-es” (except in the neuter gender, which always ends in “-a” in the nominative plural) so the correct Latin plural for “octopus” is “octopodes”.

    In order for “-i” to be the correct Latin (and thus English) plural, the Greek word would have to be “ὀκτώπος” (oktopos), which would cause it to end up as a 2nd declension noun in Latin.

    Some have pointed out that Latin words ending in “-us” have sometimes have plurals in “-ūs” (a long “u”, as opposed to the short “u” in the singular). Those are 4th declension nouns, but Greek lacks a 4th declension so Greek words don’t become 4th declension nouns when they are imported into Latin. But if “octopus” were 4th declension, then the English plural would be “octopuses” as 4th declension nouns typically have “-es” tacked on to the plural in English. An example is “census”, which has “censuses” as its English plural, but “censūs” is the Latin plural.

  22. Why are we listening to some silly person from a tiny population in what is, effectively, a linguistic backwater, talk to us about how Americans have “bastardized”* the language?

    Especially one who speaks as if Britain, or even England, were united in one pure and ancient dialect? This is, of course, nonsense, and the official “Queen’s English” is an artificial construct spoken natively by a tiny minority of a tiny minority, if indeed anyone speaks it natively at all (it’s like Klingon in that respect).

    And if you want to talk ancient provenance, the closest thing to Shakespearian English spoken anywhere in the world is in the US, in Appalachia (NOT considered an appropriate standard these days).

    English English has changed just as much as American English since the two diverged. To argue that English English is somehow the “real” language because it stayed at home while American English went seeking its fortune is narrowminded hometown provincialism of the most ridiculous kind.
    *Note the zee** there
    **Not zed, zee

    1. That’s right. Who needs to go all medieval on the English language?

      “Zed’s dead, man. Zed’s dead.”

    2. Yes we certainly must judge a country on it’s population because the more people you have the more wise you are, by that logic North America should be very wise, but well. not so much.

      1. You’re changing the subject. If you think you aren’t, it’s because you think linguistic variation is a moral issue. It is not.

      2. Aplologies for reviving a long dead thread. I just felt I HAD to put in my few cents – I’m American you know ;). I was reading through all the comments and found most of them to be quite funny. And then I happened across yours, Michael. Here everyone was enjoying the idea of changing ALL -us endings to -odes in the hopes there is only one Latin/Greek/English/American (that last one was for you) declination of plural and having a grand old(e) time of it. And then there are your comments. Riddled with bigotry and antagonism, your comments were the first and only to negate the friendly atmosphere and create this animosity.

        It’s always a shame when one person is having a bad day and needs everone to be part of their storm cloud. At the very least use a better argument than, “Americans have bastardiZSCed the proper English language because of their pronunciation.” America is known for bastardizing many things, but pronunciation is a terrible example. There are so many subtle nuances and social mores that dictate proper regional pronunciation, that new dialects are being born all the time. One thing, I think, you can make fun of us for, is our bastardiZCSation of culture. We take everyone else’s culture, rub it down a bit, and call it our own. And there is nothing wrong with that.

        But next time, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, for the sake of the children…..Leave our hot dogs out of this! :D

  23. This video breaks down into two parts — the history of the word and advice for usage. In both parts, there are serious problems.

    First, the history. The word “octopus” was coined around the 1750s by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy. He clearly knew it came from Greek, not least because the name of the order containing the octopus is “Octopoda.” (Note the “pod” ending.) Linnaeus wrote in Latin, so he clearly knew that language as well.

    This editor claims that when the word first entered English, it had a plural of “octopuses.” I’d like to see a citation for that, but let’s just assume she’s correct. Then, she claims, people wanted to make English regular by making it follow regular Latin rules, and as she says, they gave words “proper classical Latin plural endings.” Hence, “octopi.”

    But hold on — “octopus” isn’t Latin, and it isn’t Greek. It’s a Latinized Greek word, as Linnaeus knew. We don’t say “octopous,” which would be the Greek word. We use “octopus,” which is a Latin version. The proper classical Latin plural of a Latinized Greek word like this would follow third declension rules, hence “octopodes,” not second declension rules (“octopi”). (Words in “-us” in Latin can actually be declined three different ways, depending on whether they are 2nd, 3rd, or 4th declension.)

    So, whoever it was that came up with “octopi,” either they were ignorant of proper Latin rules for dealing with Latinized Greek words (which most educated persons in the 18th century would know), or they consciously decided to ignore Latin grammatical rules, perhaps in favor of some weird standardized pseudo-Latin spelling system. In any case, “octopi” is not and was never the proper classical Latin plural, something that would have been very clear to Linnaeus, who had just invented the word.

    Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word “octopod” entered English in the early 19th century. Whoever used this word clearly knew that “octopus” was from Greek, since this is a Greek form. Therefore, I’m tempted to think the entire story this editor made up is simply a fairy tale. Naturalists who adopted the Linnaean classification system in England clearly knew the proper Greek form — since the order was called “Octopoda,” the neuter version of “octopodes,” and they also refer to “octopods” in English.

    Only some person who was ignorant of both Greek and traditional Latin rules for Greek borrowed words would come up with “octopi.” Perhaps it was some random dictionary editor?

    That said, for whatever reason it appears to have caught on. Regarding the second part of the video — suggested usage — I’d have to disagree as well.

    (1) octopuses — the preferred English plural. Use it, and if someone complains, explain that “octopi” is 10 times more wrong than the preferred English plural.

    (2) octopi — never use this. I can understand if you didn’t know about this before and used the term before, but now you know from this editor about the proper grammatical forms. This isn’t one of them.

    (3) octopodes — use this only if you’re a biologist in the right setting or if you want to come across as an elitist pedant. While this is certainly a correct plural form, it shouldn’t be the preferred English form. We have too many weird English rules already to have to worry about the proper forms for declining borrowed Latinized Greek words.

    In sum, (1) and (3) are correct. (2) is wrong. For a dictionary editor to say it’s okay is like telling someone that “between you and I” is okay. It’s fine if you don’t know, but once someone explains the correct grammar to you, use something that actually makes grammatical sense.

  24. As the author of comment Anon#78, I’ll rescind a bit of my advice after further research.

    There is a case for “octopi,” namely that Linnaeus coined “octopus” in analogy to “polypus,” which was the ancient Latin word for octopus. The normal Latin plural (even ancient Latin) for “polypus” was “polypi,” so there seems to be nothing inherently wrong with the idea that the plural of “octopus” could be “octopi.”

    Even the ancient Greeks themselves sometimes treated “polypous” (from which “polypus” was derived) as a 2nd declension noun, so the Romans weren’t “ignorant slobs” for treating “polypus” as such and saying “polypi.”

    (There was an ancient Greek work “oktapus” — note the ‘a’ — which just meant “eight-footed” like the Latin “octipes,” but I don’t think there’s enough uses to know what a consistent plural would have been.)

    So, why do pedants say “octopodes” is the corrent form? Basically because Linnaeus and other naturalists said so. But they had no grammatical basis for declaring this to be the case, since the word was coined on analogy with “polypus,” whose plural was “polypi” (even Linnaeus used “polypi,” highlighting this inconsistency).

    Where do we stand?

    (1) If you use “octopuses,” you risk someone correcting you to “octopi.”

    (2) If you use “octopi,” you risk someone correcting you to “octopodes.”

    (3) If you use “octopodes,” you risk not only sounding pedantic, but also having a classicist come along and point out that there’s no sound basis for preferring “octopodes” over “octopi.”

    Since there’s no definitive grammatical reason to prefer “octopodes” over “octopi” based on historical precedent (other than Linnaeus’s personal preference), “octopuses” seems to be the only rational English plural to *ever* use, even if you want to be pedantic.

    1. This is what you heard a lot and I find this extremely hard to believe, as well as never been shown a citation of either Latin or Greek that shows it.

      The point is that in Greek, the ending was written as: -πους, not -πυς, the ου-digraph denoting a long-u. It could hardly be analysed as a second declension noun then in Greek, because the second declension ending in Greek is, of course -ος, so even if it were second, it would be, in Greek: οκτωπος, not οκτωποuς.

      Now, in Latin, these endings may collide, visually, as in Latin, long vowels were not marked _in stone_, they were marked in handwriting though with the apex. So in handwriting, it would be octópús, which does not collide with octópus.

      Also, since in Latin and Greek, vowel length was fully phonemic—indeed, Greek even had completely unrelated-looking letters for the long and the short o, and the long and the short e for instance—so it’s very difficult for it to be a second declension noun. u is simply another letter sound than ú in Latin the same way the ‘i’ in bit and bite are different in English.

      And since in Greek, they were even written down completely differently were they second or third declension nouns, I really find this hard to believe until someone provides me with a text which clearly shows this, which I’ve seen to claim to exist a lot, but never seen produced up to this point.

  25. why the anti-american sentiment (or is that
    ‘ant-I sennimnt’)? Half the population’v ingland can’t pronounce ‘one’ (they think it rhymes with ‘gone’ – lisn to john lennon’s imagine’- even when they standardise/americanise ther accents.).
    and whilst I’m at it: citin an older form’v a wurd duzn’t setl jack. Oxford University Press ha been at it fr yonks trying to push the -ize verb ending. it’s all codzwollup.

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