Tag Archives: Latin plurals

The roots of disagreement

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada. Listen to an audio version of it on Patreon.

It was one of those crises that end up in the parentheses of memoranda; it concerned the geneses of several referenda among alumni (and alumnæ) about addenda to their indices: the criteria for the termini of Greek- and Latin-derived words. By what formulæ should we choose, for instance, schemata or schemas? The competing sides saw each other’s preferences as bloody stigmata. It finally came to a head over the school’s mascots, the octopuses. Or, as the zoologists called them, the octopodes. Or, as the school’s coach called them, the octopi. Continue reading

Watch your endings, genii!

A colleague just quoted from a website on which genie is pluralized as genii.

No, it’s not correct. Genie does derive ultimately from Latin genius (which can be pluralized as genii or as geniuses), but it came to us by way of French, and it’s an English word now, so it’s genies.

But this reminds me of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed: the idea – a rather common one, it seems to me – that there is a Latin plural ending -ii that should be applied to Latin-seeming (and some other foreign-seeming) words. I see it, for instance, when some people write virii instead of viruses.

To be as plain as possible: in Latin, -ii is not a plural ending. Ever. Nor is it one in English (unless this pseudoplural catches on, I guess…). In fact, I can’t think of a language in which it is a plural ending, though there might be one somewhere. Not English, though!

No doubt some of you are saying, “Hey! That’s wrong! What about genii for genius and radii for radius?” Continue reading

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).