Daily Archives: November 9, 2009

Why “fetuses”?

A colleague asked why it was that dictionaries seemed to prefer fetuses rather than, say, fœtii, to follow the same rule (she said) as octopus, rather than the “stupid sounding” octopuses.

Well, first of all, the plural of an -us ending is -i, not -ii; the Latinate plural of octopus is octopi, not octopii. Only words that end in -ius pluralize to -ii.

Second, octopi is not really any more correct than octopuses. Octopus was a loan word in Latin and is a loan word in English, and in each case the language has applied its own inflection ending for the plural. The original is Greek octopous (“eight” + “foot”) and the plural of that is octopodes, though those who insist on saying octopodes in English conveniently forget that we don’t say octopous for the singular.

In regard to œ versus e, in many words we have gotten from Latin, the digraph has been simplified in North American English, but that’s hardly the first spelling change ever enacted on Latin loans, and efforts to retain Latin etymology (or resurrect it) have had a lot to do with the poor match between spelling and pronunciation in English. In this case, however, fetus is the more etymologically correct spelling; fœtus is an error – a misconjecture. The original Latin is fetus with a long e.

Anyway, feti is used, but rarely. Fetuses is used commonly because, after all, we’re speaking English, and we more often than not conform loan words to English morphological patterns rather than keeping them in the morphology of the source language. (Quick, what’s the plural of sauna? And why do you say that? Also, why does nobody object that the alcohol and the albatross are redundant, since the al in the source means “the”? Answer: they’re ours now [evil laugh].) I suspect that the fact that feti would sound like “feet eye” has some little something to do with the preference in this case – we don’t always like to confuse ourselves. At any rate, dictionaries document usage. They can have some prescriptive effect, but their main function is to tell people what educated people use a word to mean and how they spell and inflect it. So the usage comes first. Even Noah Webster, when he made a number of spelling reforms in his dictionary, used only spellings that had already been used in real life. (And not all of his changes stuck, either.)

Latinate plurals serve nicely as a sign of desire to sound erudite, and they keep the language nice and difficult the way we like it, but they do have practical limits, beyond which they become rather funny. I seem to recall some humorous prose or verse referring to travelling on omnibi and so forth. (-ibus, by the way, is an inflectional ending of its own and not -ib plus -us, so -ibi is no kind of Latin).


Have you seen the movie Spartacus? The arch-villain of the piece, played by Laurence Olivier, is Marcus Licinius Crassus. Like Spartacus, he was a real person. In fact, he was a good friend of Julius Caesar. He was a powerful general, but also a very, very rich businessman – so rich, it’s almost a wonder people don’t say rich as Crassus rather than rich as Croesus. His wealth equated to about $170 billion in modern terms. He was known for his avarice, but he was mainly a savvy businessman with a knack for buying things that were undervalued. He got many properties at fire sale prices – literally: if your building was on fire, he would offer to buy it on the spot – for a price that took into consideration its current state, of course – and if you sold, he would immediately bring in his private fire brigade to sort things out. But he was also a genial glad-hander, someone who greeted everyone by name in the street. Unfortunately for him, he felt his life wasn’t complete without a great military victory. Well, he got a defeat instead, in the course of which his life attained completion – or conclusion, anyway.

So is this the sort of guy you would call “fatty”? Well, if his father was Publius Licinius “Rich Dude” Fatty, then, yeah, you would call this guy Marcus Licinius Fatty (also given the nickname “Rich Dude” – well, in Latin, Dives.) You see, crassus is Latin for “fat” – think of gras, its modern French descendant. And why not? If you eat food that’s fatty you call it rich, no?

And whatever you may think of Crassus and his behaviour, and his type, however crass you may find him (and, for that matter, however Monty-Pythonish his name may seem), he didn’t actually inspire the word crass. It came straight from the common Latin. It also mean “solid” and “thick” in Latin, you see. So it was an easy borrowing into English for it to mean “gross, stupid, dense, unrefined.”

But does the word fit its meaning? It’s not a dull or heavy-sounding word; the stop and fricative are voiceless. But it’s capable of communicating a certain crudity nonetheless, from craw to ass. Francophones may think of cracher, “spit”; English echoes include crash and all those grabbing, tooth-grinding, growling words such as crap, crank, cramp, crack, crab… but note that there is also craft and, for that matter, class and grass. This word could have kept better company and it would have fit in. Still, its crash and its blaring brass seem to match the bad manners and the blatant avarice. After all, the words it most commonly modifies include commercialism and materialism.

And all of us who are just out looking for opportunities to get more money – like anyone would, because who doesn’t want more money? – well, wouldn’t we, when confronted with our cupidity, look up, surprised, and say, “Crass? Us?” Yes, mark us so; we’re thick as thieves.


I thank Roberto De Vido for suggesting crass and Crassus.