Modern English is the result of a grand linguistic experiment in creative packaging, in that the roots of its grammar are characteristically Germanic, but its vocabulary is dominated by the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. It’s been a long time since English-speaking children learned Greek and Latin in school, but the effects of traditional “Western” classical education are still all around us. Greek and Latin have shaped about half the words English speakers use today, including almost all of our technical and scientific terminology. This Word Stories instalment looks at what can happen when this profusion of Greek and Latin roots gets tangled up in English, for example in the popular temptation to use Latin endings for words that look Latin, like octopus.
The octopus is a slippery animal, in every sense of the word. It can evade predators by emitting clouds of ink. It can also change shape and even colour dramatically. It seems appropriate, then, that the word octopus is itself a confusing and shape-shifting thing.
Octopus came into English with the help of the scientific Latin name octopus, derived from the Byzantine Greek name for the animal (oktōpous) and thereby the ancient Greek adjective oktōpous (“eight-footed”). For a while, the word was treated as synonymous with polypus (“many-footed”), and the two words first appear in print together ( Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1759). Over time though, the less specific term polypus became associated more exclusively with the tentacled sea creatures still called polyps today.
Although the octopus is a relatively solitary creature, the question of how to pluralize its name eventually arose, spreading its own little flood of confusing ink. The form octopi (or octopii) is well attested (Penny Magazine for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1834), but it represents what sociolinguists call “hypercorrection”: Octopi is an attempt to apply grammatical rules where they don’t belong—based, in this case, on the mistaken assumption that octopus is a second-declension Latin word like fungus, in need of a plural form like fungi. A third-declension Latin term like octopus would, however, call for an entirely different kind of pluralization (like the change from corpus to corpora). The plural form octopuses (or octopusses) is also widespread (Macon Telegraph, 1880), despite the fact that some observers have found it unrefined, and promoted octopodes (or octopods), based on the original Greek plural oktōpodes:
“Some daring spirits with little Latin and less Greek, rushed upon octopi; as for octopuses, a man would as soon think of swallowing one of the animals thus described as pronounce such a word at a respectable tea-table. In this condition of affairs, we are glad to know that a few resolute people have begun to talk about Octopods” - The Bradford Observer, 1873
These days, the plural form octopuses has taken the lead, although octopi survives in casual contexts and octopodes still appears in formal contexts. Clearly, there’s something about the octopus that attracts the sticklers. So if you’re ever lucky enough to witness a rare gathering of these fascinating sea dwellers, make sure to use the correct technical term. It’s not a flock of octopi, or a pod of octopodes. It’s a consortium.
The English word rhinoceros testifies to a complex web of influences, including the following: the ancient Greek rhinokerōs/rhinokerōtos; the Imperial Latin rhinoceros/rhinocerotis and rhinoceron/rhinocerontis); and the Anglo-French and Middle French variants rinoceros, rynoceron, and rhinoceros. This tangled family tree resulted in a great number of attested English variants: rinoceron, rhinocerot, rhinocerontes, rinocere, rhinoceros, etc. All variants of the word, however, display their Greek origins proudly and highlight the animal’s distinguishing trait by evoking a horn (-keras) on a nose (rhino-).
When the rhinoceros was introduced to curious Europeans, it was often described as a one-horned wonder—literally, a unicorn (Latin unicornis). The 1398 English edition of Bartholomeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum accordingly calls the exotic beast “Rinocero the Unicorne.” This traditional association helps explain the rather odd biblical claim that God is as strong as a unicorn (Numbers 23:22, King James Version).
To make matters worse, modern African rhinos (a 19th-century shortening) are classified in English as either black or white, despite the fact that they are all grey. The pluralization of the word rhinoceros can create confusion too. The faithfully Greek-inspired plural form rhinocerotes has been crowded out by rhinoceros (plural) and rhinoceroses, but people who think rhinoceros sounds like Latin are sometimes still seduced by the hypercorrected form rhinoceri. Style guides today recommend saying rhinoceroses (or simply counting one rhinoceros, two rhinoceros), and rhinos is the most common form in print. It seems appropriate, though, that wild new forms of the word rhinoceros keep crashing the party as the centuries go by. A group of rhinos is, after all, called a crash.
The English word hippopotamus is derived from Imperial Latin (hippopotamus), and ultimately from ancient Greek. The compound Greek word hippopotamos was originally coined in an attempt to describe the huge, exotic animal as a “horse” (hippos) “of the river” (potamos). The first appearance of the word in English preserves this connection by referring to “ypotamus ‘the water hors’” (Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, 1398 English Edition).
While the word’s etymology and zoological connotations are very clear, the best way to talk about more than one hippopotamus is not. The animals typically live in large groups, which experts discuss variously as crashes, pods, herds, dales, or bloats. The plural form hippopotamuses is well-established (Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1833), but then again so is the Latin-inspired hippopotami (John Bishop, Beautifull Blossomes, 1577). Because the goal is ostensibly to pluralize the horse part of the name river horse (hippo/hippoi), a few philologists have even joked that people should say hippoi-potamus, for the same reason English speakers say mothers-in-law as opposed to mother-in-laws. To perfect the picture of confusion, it’s also been common for a long time to avoid the question of pluralizing endings entirely, and simply count one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus (The Gests of King Alexander of Macedon, 14th century). Authorities accept both hippopotamuses and hippopotami today, but given the awkwardness of the situation, it’s no wonder that the 19th-century shortening hippos appears in print more often than all the other plural forms put together.