Words to the Wise

Words to the Wise

Welcome to a new feature, Words for the Wise! Here I will weekly be exploring a fun/nerdy/skeptical/awesome word or feature of words. While this is not directly related to skepchickism, it’s always good for a skeptic to have a good understanding of language and a broad vocabulary. And I like words, so I’m going to write about it! Huzzah!

So for today, we’re going to talk about unexpected and antiquated plurals.

First is my favorite word EVER. We’re getting into the realm of cephalopods, which is 100% related to skepticism since for some reason skeptics seem to really like cephalopods (see P.Z. Myers). So as a linguistic freak, I get rather annoyed when people improperly pluralize my favorite animal, the great, graceful and intelligent octopus. Now the Merriam Webster Dictionary tells you that the plural of octopus is either octopuses or octopi. But don’t be fooled my dear friends. The Merriam Webster Dictionary is a liar. The word octopus is actually from a Greek root (knowledge I acquired thanks to my classics professor), oktpastedGraphic.pdfpous. There is a New Latin root, but originally it came from the Greek. In Greek, the ending pous pluralizes to podes. Therefore the plural of octopus based upon its true root is octopodes. So in the future when you’re in an important discussion about the ocean’s most majestic animal, you can show up your friends and family by using the plural octopodes.

And now moving to a more mundane example, let’s thinks about a cow. Now I don’t doubt that all of you know the plural of cow. Let’s just pluralize by adding an s. Normal. Easy. Aaah, that’s what you think. At one point in time there were TWO plurals to cow. In fact, the alternative plural of cow is the only plural that shares no letters with its singular. And that gets me all word excited (plus it’s a delightful riddle). In the Norman invasion of 1066, Old English got a whooole new look. Particularly, there was an influx of French and Latin into the genteel speech of the aristocracy. In comparison, Old English was almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon roots. Cows comes from this French influx, the strong plural of Middle English that continued into Modern English. But cow’s other plural…kine comes from the Old English, which in Middle English was a weaker plural and has survived in VERY few plurals (children, oxen, brethren). So if you ever feel like speaking or writing in antiquated English, speakest thou about thine kine.

Let me know what you think of this feature! I’m crazy excited, I love words. Also, if there’s anything you want me to talk about, just drop a comment.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. May 12, 2011 at 10:53 am —

    First of all, I dig the feature. But I just want to point out that when you throw the established rulebook out for favour of antiquated concepts you open the door to our old foes, chaos and anarchy. Does one pronounce January as Yanuary (being that it is named after the god Janus which is pronounced with the “y”)? Or when quoting the famous Ceasar line “Veni Vedi Vici”, do we pronounce it with the W instead of V as Latin would dictate? No, we follow our official guides to language, the dictionary, and sometimes it cousin the thesaurus. As for changing cow to kine, that’s pretty cool. I myself just go with cattle, but I am from Midwest so all kine are cattle here.

  2. May 12, 2011 at 10:57 am —

    Haha, well I’m a bit of a Latin freak, so I do actually pronounce it weni, wedi, wici. I just like knowing where my words come from. I’m perfectly cool with the word octopuses personally, but I have a problem with octopi, because generally it’s people who are attempting to act as if they know antiquated pluralizations but aren’t taking the time to make sure they know what they’re talking about and where the word comes from. Plus, I have a bizarre obsession with octopuses…which means I occasionally turn rather pompous about them.

    • May 12, 2011 at 11:31 am —

      I pronounce it that way too! I was surprised to hear I was supposed to be mispronouncing it. 🙂

      • May 12, 2011 at 11:32 am —

        Silly church Latin. Whatchoo doin’ to the Golden Age?

  3. May 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm —

    Fair enough. I agree that knowing where our language comes from is good, I just think we should respect the rules. If a dictionary tells me that a word is pronounced a certain way(unless of course Judge John Hodgeman says otherwise), I feel it behooves me as a speaker of the language to oblidge.

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