If the octopus teacher taught grammar it would say ‘octopi’ is ...

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WORD IN THE HAND: OCTOPUS

If the octopus teacher taught grammar it would say ‘octopi’ is incorrect

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
The word octopi has wrapped its tentacles around our brains.
Suckers for words The word octopi has wrapped its tentacles around our brains.
Image: Qijin Xu on Unsplash

After watching My Octopus Teacher, my friend Sam sent a message saying how much she loved the film and how she could never again eat calamari.

I told her that calamari are squid, which are not clever like the octopus in the movie.

“Oh good,” she replied. “I love calamari.”

So do I. But I began to wonder whether I had my facts right, so I did some digging and discovered to my horror that squid are also members of Mensa for molluscs.

In January, researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, published the first complete MRI-based map of a squid’s brain, which shows that this cephalopod cousin of the octopus has a mental capacity at least equal to that of a dog. 

Of course they don’t say what kind of dog – there’s a big difference between the brain power of a border collie and a basset hound. A squid won’t fetch a frisbee but the delicious creatures can do maths and solve problems. They could probably sort out Cricket SA in time for the next World Cup.

Which means that if octopus is off the menu by reason of its rationality, so it should be for calamari.

I still haven’t told Sam.

Moving on to deep-fried etymology, the word calamari – in English used only for food – is Italian for squid. It comes originally from the ancient Greek kalamos, meaning pen, because squid emit an inky substance when threatened. 

In Italian a single squid is a calamaro. In line with Italian rules of grammar, the plural is calamari.

This might be one of the reasons for the widespread misconception that the plural of octopus is octopi, but then the singular form of calamari would be calamarus. And it isn’t.

Fungi, cacti and hippopotami are just three of these. They all come from Latin rather than Greek, otherwise they’d be fungodes, cactodes and hippopatomodes.

Like kalamos, the word octopus comes from Greek, in which oktōpous is a combination of oktō (eight) and pous (foot). Unlike kalamos, the word octopus has not changed shape and nationality, which means its plural should match its original form.

Greek-derived words ending in “us” usually take “odes” as their plural. If you want to be a proper pedant, the plural of octopus should be octopodes. In English it is also perfectly acceptable to say octopuses.

But the word octopi has wrapped its tentacles around our brains. Whenever you say “octopuses”, you can be certain that at least eight pedants will jump down your throat and correct you, insisting that octopi are for realz. 

The persistent nature of this misunderstanding has less to do with calamari and more to do with the fact that so many English words ending in “us” take “i” in their plural form.

Fungi, cacti and hippopotami are just three of these. They all come from Latin rather than Greek, otherwise they’d be fungodes, cactodes and hippopatomodes. Like octopuses, however, it is not wrong to say funguses, cactuses and hippopotamuses.

Walruses, on the other hand, come from Dutch and Scandinavian word roots, which is why we don’t say “walri”.

Even with Latin words, there are exceptions to the rule. I can find no explanation for why we do not say circi, surpli, and boni as well as circuses, surpluses and bonuses.

We also do not say ignorami, when there is more than one ignoramus in the vicinity. This is a pity. Ignorami, as I may have mentioned previously, are people whose brains are made of folded paper. It may not be in any dictionary but it is one of my favourite words.

Incidentally, there is no singular form of origami because it is an abstract Japanese word meaning the art of folding paper. If origami were Italian, one paper model might be an origamus. As things stand, however, the only Origamus in existence is a song by Kenya-born funk/jazz/electronica musician Mario Da Piedade Rocha. It appears on an album called Needless Controversy, which could easily have been the title of this column.

This might be a pointless argument, but whichever way you look at it, octopuses are not ignorami. Nor are they octopi. Next time someone argues with you about this, bet them a squid that they’re wrong.

Read the Sunday Times on Sunday for Jonathan Ancer’s exclusive interview with the movie-star octopus, who expounds further on things literary and molluscular.

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