Suggestions needed: a good linguistic ethnography

Linguistic anthropologists (et al.): I’m looking for a suggestion for  a different ethnography for my undergrad Language and Culture class.   I’ve been using Basso’s Portraits of “the Whiteman” and while it’s  great, it’s almost 40 years old now.  What I need:

– (Relatively) short (<200 pages of text)
– In print and for sale for <$20 or so (or widely available used, or a good ebook edition)
– Ideally, focus on a non-English context
– Accessible to and of interest to juniors/seniors
– Appeal to both anthro and linguistics majors (could be more  sociolinguistic, or more linguistic anthro, but needs to have something  that looks like linguistic data)

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 9 (2017)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2017 edition of my course, Language and Societies. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next two weeks, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

John Anderson: Symbolic Meanings of the “Rune Poems”

Bridget Bennane: A Woman Ran for President: A Political and Gender Discourse Analysis on Hillary Clinton

Kaitlin Carter: Ubermess: Corporate Social Responsibility Responses as a Dialogue through Social Media

Lynn Charara: Portraits of The Orange Man

Rebecca Cornejo: Identity at 70 MPH: The crafting, meaning, and importance of personalized license plates

Nadine Duchaine: Native American Code Talkers: Life before the Code

Katilyn Gerstner: Differences in opportunity teaching styles between multiparous and uniparous chimpanzee mothers suggest that experienced mothers are better teachers

Michael Henson: Critical Discourse Analysis of Media: A Systematic Approach to Analyzing Child Welfare Representation in the Media

Miriam Jacobs: Metaphors of Poverty

Kelsey Jorgensen: Displaying the Dead: Assessing Agency Through Museum Linguistic Practices

Travis Kruso: Updating the Fashion System? Using Language to Create and Maintain Authenticity in the Online Avant Garde

Colleen Linn: Legitimatizing the right to water in Michigan’s post-industrial cities

Emily K. Lock: Gettin’ Fit to Push a Bit: Medical advice about exercise during pregnancy (1900-present)

Stacy F. Markel: Power Play: gender, power, and language of nurses and doctors

Kailey McAlpin: Analyzing Detroit’s Racialized Public Discourse of Urban Renewal through Metaphor

Luke Pickrahn: The language of extreme metal

Terri Renaud: Language Construction and Cultural Representation in Fantasy Video Games

Elizabeth Riedman: The discourse of Detroit: A critical look into the use of language within Detroit documentaries

Rebecca Sawyer: Beisbol and Tostones: Constructing Narratives of Puerto Rican Identity in Secondary Level, First Year Spanish Textbooks

Maria Schell: Discipline or Domestic Violence: Distinctions in discourse about interpersonal violence

Jasmine Walker: Lexical and Performative Cues for the Provocation of an Altered State of Consciousness in the American Evangelical Church

Hannelore Willeck: 18th Century Advertising Language and the Shift from British Colony to New Nation

Josh Wolford: Anishinaabe Toponyms in Michigan: A History of Colonized Folk Etymology and Anishinaabe Cultural Renaissance

Athena Zissis: Memories of Unrest: Placing the Detroit 1967 Project within the Riot vs. Rebellion Debate

Public lecture: Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals

For any of you in the New York City area this coming week, I’ll be giving a public lecture ‘Renewing a dynamic cognitive philology of numerals‘ at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, Friday 02/24, 5:00pm.  All are welcome.

And for those of my readers who are in the Detroit area / part of the Wayne State community, have no fear: I’ll be reprising this talk at the WSU Humanities Center brownbag series, Thursday 03/23, 12:30 pm.  Again, this is a public lecture.

Seeking survey participants: Knowledge and Beliefs About Cognitive Anthropology

I’m writing to ask for your help in spreading the word about a new online research study on anthropologists’ knowledge and beliefs about the subfield of cognitive anthropology.  I hope you will consider participating in this short survey by clicking the link below.

Also, please take a moment to let your colleagues and students know about this survey by sharing this post.

I’m interested in learning more about how cognitive anthropology is understood today, among anthropologists and anthropology students of all subdisciplinary and theoretical perspectives.   My hope is to collect a wide range of data from people from different career stages, nationalities, and research interests, including both people who know a lot about cognitive anthropology and those who don’t.

Participants will complete an online Qualtrics survey, which should take about 15 minutes to complete.   Participation is voluntary, and no identifying information or IP addresses are being collected.  Participants should be 18 years or older.

To complete the survey, you can click on this link or copy/paste the following URL into your browser:

If you have any questions about this research study, please contact me (Stephen Chrisomalis) at

Thank you for your assistance.

Two immigrants: a story for a Trumpian era

January 10, 1904. My great-grandfather George Kastris, a non-literate farmer from Greece, arrives in North America for the first time at the age of 25 through the port of New York, en route to Toronto, travelling back and forth to Greece several times until finally emigrating for good in 1925. You can see him on line 11 of this register (click to enlarge).


List or manifest of alien passengers, S.S. Savoie, Port of New York, Jan. 10, 1904

He had $10 to his name, and since this was his first trip, he spoke basically no English. Maybe he had a passport, but certainly no authorization was needed to go from the US up to Canada to work for as long as he liked, to stay with his brother-in-law. No chest X-ray, no green card lottery, no extreme vetting. I guess I’m glad to see that he was neither a polygamist or an anarchist, since those things could get you turned back. But you know that other than asking him “Are you an anarchist?” there was no way for the folks in New York to confirm that.

Now look at the guys above and below him, with their names like Jamal and Hussein and Kalil, from ‘Syria’ – actually you can see they are from Beirut, now Lebanon. Probably Muslim (though there are a few Lebanese Christian names further down the list too). Just a few dollars to their name, first time in the country, going to live with some relative, just like my grandmother’s dad George. I like to think they were all buddies (but that could just be my imagination). Just a bunch of brown dudes from the eastern Mediterranean, come on in to work in America, or Canada, doesn’t much matter, just let us write down where you’re going to end up and whether you have a ticket there already. Think about how normal it was to just come across the ocean in steerage on the S.S. Savoie in 1904, just a bunch of Greeks and Lebanese and Italians and whatnot. I wonder about the grandkids of those other guys, whether they’re old retired farts in Newark or Mississauga or wherever.

Now I’m confident that North America in 1904 was a pretty racist place. I’m not saying that everyone welcomed George and Jamal and Hussein and Kalil with open arms. From Know-Nothings to the Klan to goddamn Breitbart, anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new. My point is not to idealize 1904.

But ask yourself this: If your family came to North America as immigrants, whenever they came, do you have any sense of what papers they carried, what questions they faced, how they were treated? When we talk about immigrant societies, we’re not just talking about 1904 but the millions of immigrants and refugees, coming from all walks of life, from the Germans who Ben Franklin hated so much, to the hated papist Irish, to the Jews (side note: America, stop painting swastikas all over the place already! Don’t you watch enough stupid World War II movies to know that’s seriously screwed up?) And of course, the Mexicans and the Syrians and the Chinese. What gives you the right to tell today’s potential Americans that the country is full? When did you suppose that you, particularly, have the right to decide who can be American? On what basis comes the right to choose who counts as a good immigrant?

And then let’s not forget poor little Steve, come to America in 2008 to take some American’s job, an immigrant only because his great-grandfather ended up on this side of an imaginary line instead of the other side. Takes me about 20 minutes to get to work, not eight days, and I’m damn glad not to be in steerage class on the Savoie (although the Ambassador Bridge is in rough shape these days). But you know damn well that I’m not the immigrants they’re talking about. And then you have to ask yourself: why the hell not.

Drinks by the jillion

My most recent publication, ‘Umpteen reflections on indefinite hyperbolic numerals‘ (American Speech 91(1), 1-33) defines and discusses a category of words: indefinite hyperbolic numerals.  These are words like umpteen or skillion, which look and act like numerals, but don’t have a definite numerical meaning: they’re always indefinite, and almost always refer to some exaggerated quantity.  One of my main arguments is that while we think of words ending in -illion as random alterations of the first consonant of million or billion, their history is rooted in specific speech communities, and in particular, American speech communities of the late 19th and early 20th century.  I show that in the 1920s and 1930s, almost all of the instances of zillion are in African American publications, and almost all of the instances of jillion are from Texas and the southern Plains states.  Jillion almost never appears in African American publications and zillion almost never appears in the Plains.  After the start of World War II, these regional numerical traditions disappeared for the most part, and the words’ specific communities of origin were lost.

One thing that had bothered me was that I hadn’t been able to figure out what happened where those two communities intersected.  What about the African American communities of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska?  Did they use jillion, zillion, or both?

Too late to add to the article, but not too late to share here, I’ve now found one instance of jillion in an African-American newspaper, the Negro Star of Wichita, Kansas:


Negro Star, Wichita, Kansas, June 11, 1937, p. 2

Wichita had (and still has) a large African American community, and the Negro Star was published there from 1908 to 1953.   But it’s worth noting that this is an ad, placed by the Kansas Gas and Electric Company (now Kansas Gas Service), which was the energy provider for the whole state, so there’s a likelihood that the ad was written by white copywriters (from whom we would expect jillion).  On the other hand, I haven’t been able to find another copy of this same ad in any other paper, so maybe this was a one-off ad written specifically for the Star by a black writer.    Regardless, within a few years of its publication, jillion and zillion would intermix freely in American English.


The strange case of the Urinal Smoothy

My wife Julia Pope, who is the archivist for the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, came across an unusual item in her collection the other day, an anonymous bawdy poem entitled “Urinal” Smoothy:


The source is the 1933 edition of the program of the Galens Smoker, a yearly student comedy show put on by the University of Michigan Galens Medical Society since 1918 and still going on today.  The poem is hardly a masterwork, though clever enough.

The word smoothy (or more often, smoothie) to modern English speakers is a blended thick drink made with fruit.  A ‘urinal smoothy’ is downright disgusting, whatever it is.  Something had to have changed for this to make sense.  And indeed, a look at the Oxford English Dictionary revealed a different, now-obsolete meaning of smoothie:

A person who is ‘smooth’; one who is suave or stylish in conduct or appearance: usu. a man. Occas. with unfavourable sense: a slick but shallow or insinuating fellow, a fop.
The earliest quotation in the OED is from 1929 from the Princeton Alumni Weekly:
1929   Princeton Alumni Weekly 24 May 981/3   Smoothie..indicates savoir faire, a certain je ne sais quoi… Clothes do much to make the smoothie.

This is a sense of smoothie that at least makes a little sense, and fits with the period, but it hardly explains why a poem glorifying the penis would have a title referencing a smooth fellow.  But the second quotation in the OED shows us the solution:

1932   B. G. de Sylva et al. (title of song)    You’re an old smoothie.

It turns out that “Urinal” Smoothy is just a rather ridiculous pun involving a famous song title from the time.  The quotation marks give it away. You’re an Old Smoothie is now largely forgotten, although it was eventually recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in 1958.  Here’s an original recording from 1933:

Unfortunately, I don’t think the rhythm of the song fits well with the scansion of the poem, but I like to think that “Urinal” Smoothy was sung to the tune at the Galens Smoker.  Of course, it may just have been a poem read aloud.

Smoothie (the stylish man) hangs around for the next several decades but never really takes off.  Smoothie (the drink) is first attested only in 1977 but takes off rapidly thereafter and is now widespread, as this Google Ngram attests:

In either case, smoothy with a Y is less common than smoothie.  In fact, “Urinal” Smoothy appears to be the first attestation of the less-common spelling smoothy.  Google Ngram Viewer won’t help us much here because there are hundreds of optical character recognition errors for smoothly among the results.

I looked around for any additional evidence as to its authorship, but could only find one reference online from an untitled 1943 US Marines songbook containing the poem in its entirety, along with other songs and poems of similar ilk.  The poem has been retitled, boringly, The Penis, with “Urinal” Smoothy reduced to a mere parenthetical subtitle.  On the other hand, the hit song was a decade old by that time, and the title didn’t make that much sense in the first place.   The preface to the songbook mentions several contributors by initials only, including one K.C. from Ann Arbor, Michigan (home to the University of Michigan).  Other than a few typographical alterations, the text of the 1943 version is identical to the 1933 one, so we’re presumably dealing with a situation where someone had access to a copy of the text.

So have no fear. The urinal smoothy is neither a new form of frat-boy hazing nor the latest health craze, but the result of a strange confluence of lexical change and 1930s pop culture.  Drink from the fountain of knowledge instead!

Lexiculture: feisty

Kathryn Horner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Horner, Kathryn. 2016. Feisty. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 8.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

I’ve always had a special fondness for the word feisty because the word as an adjective in the current cultural context of which I am most familiar embodies all of which I consider myself to be; opinionated, aggressive, self-confident, and a myriad of other descriptors that pertain to (mostly) females.  As I set down to discover the origins of feisty I imagined the word having Germanic or Norse roots, with perhaps the “ty” ending being added within Old or Middle English times, because the oh-so-popular singer Feist doesn’t have the “ty”, therefore there must be a meaning or usage other than adjective form.  I set up my Google scholar search, and waited eagerly for the search bar to yield the results.  The page loaded and as I scanned a few sentences of each entry I was surprised at what they all had in common; the Germanic origin: “to fart”.  So when I’d been referring to myself as a “feisty woman” I was actually referring to myself (as my research led me to deduce) a “farting, small dog”.

Obviously the word has seen a semantic shift over the centuries, as most people do not use the word feist to refer to a small, dog[1] nor when a person “breaks wind” do they say, “I’ve just feisted”.  We’ve taken the word and shifted it according to the cultural times and as a descriptive word we can see where a feisty person perhaps does imitates a small, yappy dog.  If an individual thought about this rationally instead of being potentially insulted, we can see where the idea that a person who is aggressive, outgoing, loud, raucous, etc. has a lot in common with small lap dogs who tend to be those things.  Taking it further, if we again use a rational head to think how a small lap dog could become synonymous with the Germanic word fyst or fist, which has a basic meaning of “to fart or break wind” we only need take a moment and think of an encounter we may have had with a small dog and the correlation between “breaking wind” and the attitude, demeanor, and dare I say “wind-escapes” that the dog may have, we can see the synonymous nature of the two and it becomes understandable.

How and why did the word Germanic and Middle English word fist (fyst), which as we now know means “to break wind” shift to feist, meaning “a small lapdog”, to feisty which has been used since the 19th century in an adjective form to describe a person (usually a female) who bears resemblance to said antics of a feist?


Those feisty Germans: from fist (v.) to adj

I gave a rudimentary outline of the semantic shift above, however the individual words themselves need understanding in order for the question to be answered properly.

Like many words, there is usually a root word from the “parent”, and because of cross-cultural trade, wars, etc. there is the borrowing of words from one language to another, and feisty is not different.  As I stated above, the word has a Germanic origin in to fist, meaning “to fart or break wind”[2], and according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, “because fisting is attested as early as the year 1000, there was probably a verb fistan ‘to break wind’ in Old English” (175).  Now that a rough timeline of the word has been shown, context now becomes important.

As with many words that stem far back into time spelling is varied.  One could take every spelling of the word from Old English, to Middle English, to Norse, etc. and research the various cognates and contexts in which it was used to ascertain the meaning, however I’ve decided to settle on fist, feist, and feisty, those three being the most common amongst the sources I’ve found.

When I used the Google Ngram viewer to get a basic idea of the word’s usage in British English[3] I searched using all three: fist, feist, feisty.


Google Ngram of fist, feist, and feisty 1600-2000

I chose to use such a large timeframe to start with because of my initial research into the word and the mention of its Germanic origins, but also the culture dictated a change in Old and Middle English, so it’s important to consider that time and quantify it.  One difficulty with using the time frame I did, however, is that speakers and writers of Old and Middle English did not have a standardized way of spelling; this lack of uniformity thusly challenged my ability to analyze early data, simply because when I clicked on books in time periods offered by Google, I found them to be 1) religious in nature (which makes sense given the time) 2) the usage being closer phonetically to feast or first and 3) illuminated manuscripts or copies of books from the 1600’s show the “f” as an “s”.  Nonetheless, we can see fist saw tremendous usage changes from 1600-1700, with peaks and valleys mostly between 1600-1650 and feisty and feist not even on the radar.

Next I did a Google Ngram search for the same three words but this time changing it to American English, to see if there was a change.  The few dictionaries I’d consulted stated that feist was a term that was seen in American English, and the “ty” ending was added on to the noun to change it to an adjective.[4]

The difference in the three words can be seen in the red line, which is used to represent feist.  The word that has been considered “American” is used more frequently in American English, giving rudimentary credence to the thought that feisty then and now, is  “American made”.


From fist to feist: an American tale

Excerpt from “Our Southern Highlanders” by Horace Kephart (American, 1916)


The above is a passage from Horace Kephart’s book Our Southern Highlanders, which is part of a series of books he wrote about the rural peoples of the Appalachian Mountains.  What precedes this statement is a question posed to the character about why he was called “feisty” and what did it mean? The answer given to the young boy is that he is as feisty as a feist! That he has an excitable, assertive nature much like that of a small dog.  At the time of this writing feist had been an acceptable word to call a small to medium sized dog for over a century.  Now we must ask: “why?”

If you’ve ever been around a small dog, you know they have a very specific demeanor.  Most small dogs are bred for hunting, chasing small game, etc. but the main thing they are “wont to do” is to break wind.  A small dog breaking wind on your lap is something a person would notice, in fact a lot of people in the room would be able to notice it, so one can see how these small creatures were called fists or fisting hounds.

In his book The Complete Idiots Guide to Weird Word Origins, Paul McFedries explains that “when the word crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in the United States, the pronunciation had changed so that fist now rhymed with heist” (57).

So small dogs are now being called something analogous to “a fart”, and the New World-ers have done what they do well and changed the spelling and pronunciation, but how did the word itself transcribe into our modern lexicon as “an assertive, independent person”?


From farting to females: a woman’s worth

            I’ve already established feisty’s historical transformation in spelling and meaning, but when did it become a common, established adjective used to describe women? You don’t often hear a man being referred to as “feisty”, but a woman? Certainly.  When I was still in the beginning throes of my research and I saw that feisty had come from “breaking wind” and I considered how we use it now in relation to a woman, my first thought was “because women are so long-winded!” I was wrong.

Going back to Paul McFedries and his weird word origins book, the idea that a person who embodies the behavior of a small hound, is therefore considered to be feisty.  “The spiritedly aggressive nature of a feist was also a trait seen in humans, so by the end of the nineteenth century, folks were describing such people as feisty” (57).  Not to be outdone: “Since such dogs tend to be nervous and temperamental, feist gave rise to the adjective feisty, which was applied to lively, fidgety, or quarrelsome people.”[5] So there we have it.  Those who embody the spirit of a small, farting dog have the pleasured of being called feisty! The entries didn’t state a woman; they stated a person or people.  So how did the word end up being used in a mostly feminine context?

As I said in the beginning I tend to describe myself as feisty, and I don’t think it is a negative word to be associated with.  I see nothing wrong with being assertive, lively, or even quarrelsome (depending on the context, of course), but as I began this part of my research I found that the word’s usage, context, and whether or not it is demeaning is under current debate.  I cannot solve all the cultural and socio-linguistic questions of the universe, so I will have to leave that aspect out, but that debate is worth taking into consideration when looking at the Ngram viewer of the word and its usage, especially after 1970. 2-8-4

Google Ngram viewer timeline of feisty from 1900-2000 (American English)

I used the Google Ngram viewer to give myself a rough timeline of when the word became more involved in our vernacular.  I choose a smaller time window because my previous research showed that the word had entered the vernacular as being used to describe a person around 1895.  As the chart shows, the word has steady usage through the beginning of the 20th century, but it picks up in usage in the late 1960’s.  The 1960’s were a very historical point for America, specifically in relation to civil rights for women and minorities.  Taking our present day knowledge about the use of feisty and it being a word commonly used to describe an assertive woman, we can theorize about its usage becoming more popular because of the women’s movement.  Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of the 60’s can conjure up TIMES images of bra-burning feminists, and who better to embody the current context of the word feisty than those women?

For much of the 20th century women felt the need to be demure, respectful, yielding, quiet, and to play second fiddle to men both in the work place and at home.  Once the cultural landscaped shifted, and women were given a larger voice in political, social, and economic arenas the usage of feisty steadily grows.  We see that incline in the viewer: from 1970-2000 there is a continuous upsurge in usage and the variety of books that Google has within its corpus to support that this is a word that grew steadily after a very conflicting time in American society.

As I said above, feisty has become a word that is in a tussle between men and women as to whether it is appropriate or not.  Like some words, if one cultural group calls like members by it the word is acceptable; it is not acceptable for outsiders to use that word in relation to an insider, as that can be considered shameful and demeaning.  The modern-day sources and social media, (online magazines, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)  that I briefly looked at show that we are in the midst of this with feisty.  This new and emerging paradigm will be interesting to follow.

Feisty is a word that embodies and shows how cultural shifts take place amongst peoples.  From its humble origins as a word meaning to “break wind” to the current “a person who is aggressive, confident”, the word itself has undergone change in spelling, from a verb to adjective, as well as becoming slang within American society, as well as others around the world.  Those feisty Germans, Anglo-Saxons, Brits, and Americans have put their own spin on many words, but this word takes the proverbial cake.

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[3] I chose British English as a starting point because of the Germanic influence on the lexicon

[4] Webster’s Dictionary and OED both give dates of origin around 1806 with entry into said dictionaries being 1896.  Both have “American English”.

[5] The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories pg. 175

Lexiculture: chipotle

Gabriela Ortiz

Wayne State University

Cite as: Ortiz, Gabriela. 2016. Chipotle. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 7.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)


The purpose of this paper is to highlight how corporations appropriate words and concepts through trademark, branding and marketing, and systematically strip words and concepts of their original meaning.  Using the term “chipotle” as a case study, I will illustrate how the fast-food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, has essentially displaced the original meaning and history of the ancient Nahuatl word “chipotle.”  The appropriation of the term simultaneously perpetuates a culture of invisibility with regards to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, whose indigenous words and emblems extinguished in society’s consciousness, and usurped by a corporate replacement.   Chipotle has essentially become synonymous with the fast food franchise, and nearly as American as the hotdog or hamburger.  This paper will provide historical context of the word chipotle and illustrate how the ancient Mexica, also known as the Aztecs, used chipotle chiles in their cuisine.  In addition, this paper will highlight the salient place the chile occupies in contemporary Mexican cuisine, culture, and national identity.  It is important to know the history of the chipotle chile and its consumption in ancient Mexico, as well as in present times, in order to understand the complexities linked to the appropriation of the term in modern popular discourse.

Keywords: chipotle, chipoctli, xipotli, chile, Mexica, Aztec, Nahuatl


A quick Google web search for the word “chipotle” pulls up a never-ending string of information about the fast food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill. It is not until the second page of the search that one begins to find information about the smoke-dried jalapeño chile. This is quite interesting because the chipotle chile has existed for thousands of years — centuries’ longer than the Chipotle restaurant chain has been in business.  Therefore, if the smoke-dried jalapeño chiles have been in existence for so long, why is it that the American owned chain restaurant dominates the Google search database?  Branding and cultural appropriation comprise the primary explanation for this dissonance.

The term “chipotle” has distinct meanings to different people. For some, it automatically conjures up imagery of the smoke-dried chile.  For others, chipotle simply means the name of the fast-food Mexican restaurant, currently taking over the nearest college town, downtown corridor, or suburban strip mall.  However, even before the proliferation of the chain restaurants bearings its name, the chipotle chile has a rich and long history in the Americas, as well as in Europe.  But one would never know about this history unless they added “definition” to their Google search. The Chipotle franchise has managed to remove or conveniently omit any cultural factors of the word chipotle and its indigenous roots to the Mexican culture.  In short, the restaurant has functionally sought to monopolize the term, “chipotle,” and unroot the term from its indigenous soil.

Chilpoctli, Xipotli or Chipotle?

The chipotle chile gets its name from the Nahuatl, a people indigenous to modern-day Mexico. “Chilpoctli” or “xipotli”, meaning, “smoked chili,” or “humo de chile” in Spanish, is a word coined by the Nahautl (Leander 1972).  There are alternative ways of spelling chipotle, as noted above.  However, over time, the common spelling has become chipotle, dropping the “l” before the “p” and replacing the “I” in favor of the “e’. No reasons were discovered for this preferred spelling, except for perhaps ease and convenience.  Furthermore, the popular dictionaries do not often include each form of spelling, but most etymology references do, with Merriam-Webster including the year it was first used. The Merriam-Webster dictionary places chipotle to have first been used in the 1950’s, which corresponds with the Ngram viewer.  The chart below illustrates that prior to 1948, there was no mention of the word chipotle, then a sudden spike in the 1980’s.


Chipotle in Everyday Mexica Life

When we think of the staple foods of the Mexica, we think of maize, beans and squash — the three sisters.  But chiles were just as important to the Mexica’s cuisine as maize (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990, p. 113).  Previously regarded by the Europeans as a useless addition in terms of caloric intake or nutritional value — or lack thereof, the chile pepper actually provides adequate quantities of vitamins A and C.  But because the Mexica ate it on a daily basis, research demonstrates that the consumption of chile served as a supplement to the Mexica diet. The table below taken from Ortiz de Montello’s Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, illustrates the possible total grams per serving in a typical Mexica diet with the supplemental nutrition of chiles and tomatoes (p. 101):

Diet Cal Protein CA Vit A Thiamine Riboflavin Niacin Vit C FE
Corn (500g) 1,790 42 55 0.75 2,4 0.5 0.5 7.5
Beans (100g) 343 22.7 134 0.008 0.47 0.15 2.09 1 7.1
Squash (50g) 10 0.6 14 0.06 0.2 0.05 0.5 11 0.2
Chili (20g) 23 0.93 7.3 1.62 0.06 0.09 1.1 93 0.3
Tomato (50g) 11 0.6 7.0 0.13 0.03 0.02 0.4 12 0.3
Total 2,177 66.83 217 2.57 3.16 0.81 13.6 117 15.4


Note: Units are g for protein and International Unites (IU) for vitamin A. All others are mg.

Of particular relevance to a consideration of Aztec foods is the nutritional value of the staple diet of Mesoamerica—corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by chilies and tomatoes. This triad has been the basis of the Aztec diet since antiquity, and the addition of chili and tomato as condiments covered most culinary situations

Chiles are arguably a staple of Mexica diet.  However, the chipotle chile occupied a particular distinction.  Due to the process by which the jalapeño pepper is transformed into a chipotle chile, the Mexica took advantage of the pungent and irritating qualities of the process to advance specific social and strategic aims.  For instance, mothers would use the smoke of the chiles to punish their poorly behaved children, and there are even accounts of the Aztecs using the chipotle smoke as a form of chemical warfare against the Spanish, “chile smoke was used as fumigant, as well as a means of chemical warfare, and the Aztecs disciplined their recalcitrant offspring with it (Coe 1994 p. 63).  Many Mexican mothers (mine included) continue this tradition of threatening with chiles as punishment for cursing or backtalk, or as a means to rid the child of a nail-biting habit or sucking of the thumb.


Picture shows parents punishing their children by placing their face near the smoke of chiles.

Without a doubt, the love of chipotle chiles, and chiles in general have been a part of Mexican cuisine since the pre-Columbian era, and that love has remained in present time.

A Love Affair with Chiles

Mexicans love chile. Mexicans love chile so much that the food is incorporated in popular songs, sprinkled on a diverse milieu of foods, and revered as if a national symbol.  The many musical odes to the chile, however, illustrate the country’s deep love affair with the pepper.

The Mexican group Banda Sinaloense includes the chile in the hook of their song “Cahuates Pistaches.” The lyrics include “con sal, limon y chile”, or “with salt, lemon and chili,” which is repeated a number of times throughout the song. The song also calls for a special dance to go along with the song—a quick thrust of the pelvis as the word “chile” is uttered. It is an interesting choice for a dance move given the phallic shape of the chile pepper.  Esther Katz asserts that in Mexico, along with Hungary and Calabria, the chile pepper is a symbol of virility, which is why it is found that men in Mexico consume more chile peppers than women (2009 p. 222).  In addition to its attractive shape, chiles also make you hot, with some cultures regarding the chile as an aphrodisiac (Katz, 2009, p. 222).

A trip to any part of Mexico will attest to the fact that Mexicans do love chile, especially chile chipotles. Mexican cuisine has been using these hot fruits since the pre-Columbian era, and have even retained some very indigenous dishes such as mole, atole, tamales, all of which may include the use of chipotle chiles. So to the Mexican culture, the chipotle chile is a symbol of national identity and marker of a very proud history.  Although the use of chiles is pervasive throughout Latin America, non-Mexican dishes are not as spicy or hot.  In other words, the chipotle chile is most prominent in, in frequency and degree, in Mexican cuisine.  If a Mexican visited the countries beyond Guatemala, the food would not be spicy enough, even though pepper is consumed there in nearly the same manner (Katz, 2009, p. 223).  Given the reverence for the chile in both Aztec and present day Mexican life, it should come as no surprise on the mixed attitudes towards the fast food franchise Chipotle Mexican Grill. In a world of globalization and instant-everything, the commodification of Mexican culture and history while ignoring and marginalizing the very people who hail from its country of origin is quite hypocritical.

The Chipotle Restaurant Chain: A Case of Appreciation or Appropriation?

Many would contend that until the emergence of the chain Chipotle, a great number of individuals did not know what or who a chipotle was. By virtue of Chipotle Mexican Grill using the word “chipotle” as the name of their restaurant, they single handedly introduced — or reintroduced — the chipotle to the mainstream.  Does Chipotle serve as a cultural bridge and push its consumers to “Google” chipotle? Perhaps, but a simple Google search only triggers pages upon pages of the restaurant and no word of the Aztecs.  It would appear that Chipotle has “Columbused” a part of Mexican culture.  To “Columbus” something implies that an individual or corporations “discover” something that has existed forever (not literally, that’s difficult to know for certain) outside of the dominant culture. Examples of “Columbusing” something would be the sudden hummus trend, coconut water, pita chips or yoga.  While Mexican cuisine has existed in the United States for as long as the United States has been an independent nation-state, the near obsession with the restaurant Chipotle has taken the appreciation of Mexican food into the nefarious realm of appropriation. To be sure, I am not assuming the worst of the chain restaurant, I emailed the media office of Chipotle Mexican Grill and posed two questions:

  • “What led the corporation to the choose this name? Is the company at all familiar with the historical significance of the chipotle chiles during the Aztec Empire?”
  • “Also, many restaurants contain large Maya figures as wall decoration. Is the company aware that the word ‘Chipotle’ is a Nahuatl word spoken by the Aztecs, and not the Maya?” This conflation of two distinct indigenous peoples was concerning.

Chipotle’s reply was prompt and concise:

“We didn’t choose the name for any specific cultural origin. Much of our food is seasoned with this trusty little pepper, and we, in turn, decided it would be a great name for the restaurant. Our art comes from a close friend of our co-CEO, Steve Ells, and he designed the first decorations for the first restaurant, and has continued ever since. I hope this helps a little bit, and I’m sorry that there aren’t any specific ties to language or cultural significance here.”

In essence, Chipotle has excluded Mexican history from their restaurant and deprived its consumers of a rich historical context while profiting from the culture. It should be noted that this is not the only example of appropriation and erasure. Recently, Chipotle came under fire for failing to include any Mexican or Mexican-American authors as part of their new campaign to include excerpts of literature on their cups.  Actually, Chipotle failed to include any Latino authors.  Further excluding Mexicans and Latinos from the dominant, mainstream formation of “chipotle,” and swinging the pendulum squarely toward appropriation.


Despite the long history of the chipotle chile and its multiple usages, the word chipotle is now synonymous with the American owned fast food restaurant, in turn stripping the word of its indigenous meaning, salience and significance.  The Mexica have been colonized for the third time.

One can say that Chipotle is responsible for the millions of Americans who “Columbused” spicy Mexican food and made it trendy.  So trendy, in fact, that Chipotle has taken over the microblogging and video service, Vine producing videos mostly satirical in nature.  But all of this points to a larger issue, which American chef and television personality, Anthony Bourdain so eloquently stated in one of his television episodes revolving around Mexican food. Bourdain asked why Americans love Mexican food, drugs, alcohol and cheap labor but ignore the violence that happens across the border. “Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration…we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children.” (Salinas, 2014).

Indeed our food and labor is cheap, at least to the American economy, but our history is long, diverse and rich. These are ingredients missing from the prevailing denotation of chipotle imposed by the chain restaurant.  However, it only takes a few more Google searches to set aside the fatty ingredients, and uncover this rich and healthy history.


chipotle. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

chipotle. (n.d.). In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

chipotle. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

Leander, Birgitta. Herencia Cultural Del Mundo Nahuatl A Traves De La Lengua. Secretaria de Educacion  Publica, 1972. Print

Coe, Sophie. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, 1994. Print

Katz, Esther. Chili Pepper, from Mexico to Europe: Food, Imaginary and Cultural Identity. 213-232. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from

Townsend, Richard. The Family and Education. The Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1995. Print.

Salinas, Brenda. (2014, July 06). ‘Columbusing’: The Art Of Discovering Something That Is Not New, National Public Radio. Retrieved November 10 2014, from

Soustelle, Jacques. A Mexican’s Day. Daily Life of The Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1970. Print.

Lexiculture: octopi

Kayla Niner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Niner, Kayla. 2016. Octopi. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 6.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

I. Introduction

Octopuses. Octopi. Octopodes. Octopus. How many plurals can one word have? Somewhere across the span of the last two hundred years, the word octopus has ended up with four mainstream pluralizations. Why are English speakers so obsessed with the plural form of an animal that they rarely encounter outside of aquariums and food? What makes octopi so special that people are willing to write entire blogposts dedicated to the discussion of what the correct plural form is? This paper seeks to explore these murky waters to see how long this whole squabble has been going on and what in the world is on the minds of the people who spend so much time trying to figure out the right answer.

In deep recesses of a cave
That cool and limpid waters lave,
Where human eye doth rarely pierce,
Sojourns a creature strange and fierce :
Not mine be it to sing its fame–
I only wish to find its name.
Octōpus has a formal sound,
Yet like my theme is full and round ;
But common parlance writes it thus,
And says it is the Oc’tŏpus.
So far if one ; –but if of more,
I puzzled truly am, and sore,
As Octopod ‘tis often writ
(In which I don’t believe a bit).
Sometime ‘tis spelt Octopidæ,
But that it surely cannot be ;
Nor Octopi, nor Octopes,
Less likely still Octopodes ;
And Octopods is too absurd–
A plural of a plural word !
I have it now–for all this fuss is
The way to spell the “Octopusses.”
(The Spelling Bee 1876:172)

In 1876, someone who called himself ‘The Spelling Bee’ wrote the above poem seeking the same answer that this paper had initially set out to find. Using Google Books’ NGram viewer, which searches a great number of English language books for the phrases typed into its search box, the terms ‘octopuses, octopi, and octopodes’ were searched and their frequencies over time mapped (Table A, Table B). Since the NGram viewer can only find words and not differentiate on whether the word was used as a plural or a singular noun, another plural form, ‘octopus,’ was omitted from the search. The results were clear on one thing: it appeared that octopi and octopodes were the oldest, with results showing up in the early 1800s (Table A). Octopi won this early battle it seems, as octopodes vanishes from the NGram viewer until its return briefly in the 1840s, then again in 1906. However, by the 1870, octopuses had made the scene and by 1920 had pushed octopi into second best. By 1930 octopuses made a clear leap into popularity. It continued on its way up in usage until 1963 when it reached a peak, and began to fall (Table B). However, as no other form begins to rise, this is likely due to less chatter about the eight-tentacled organism.


Table A


Table B


II. Early Appearances

The origins of these three plurals, which are by and large the most argued about, come from three different languages. The word ‘octopuses’ is a normal English plural: octopus ends in an ‘s’ so, like with other words ending in ‘s’ and ‘z,’ one should add an ‘es’ to pluralize it. ‘Octopi’ is how that word would be made plural if octopus were Latin, like syllabus and syllabi. Finally, ‘octopodes’ is a Greek pluralization. So how did the plurals from two different languages end up in the English language? According to Kory Stamper, an editor for Merriam Webster’s dictionary, ‘octopi’ was invented in the 1730s when there was a Latin revivalist movement going on (2014). It was around this same time that ‘octopodes’ entered the language, the response of a different group of people who realized that octopus was a Greek loanword, not a Latin one. She also states, contrary to the NGram, that the standard plural of the time was ‘octopuses’ (Stamper 2014). Of course, just because the word does not appear in the digitized literature of the early 1800s does not mean that it did not exist, or perhaps it disappeared for a while after the turn of the 19th century. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America database turns up ‘octopi’ in newspapers as early as 1839, but ‘octopuses’ does not show up until 1881 (Library of Congress).What is known, is that in 1876 someone wrote a poem about the issue (The Spelling Bee 172) and in 1882 the word octopuses was listed in a manual called “Errors of Speech,” which cited that either ‘octopi’ or ‘octopuses’ would be appropriate plurals (Brewer 1882:742). The word ‘octopi’ has its own separate dictionary entry in 1889, listed simply as “plural of octopus” (Smith 4079). A little earlier than the poem was written, in 1872, a man who gave his name as Philologus Orthodoxus wrote into a journal called Medical Press & Circular. He wrote in stating that the word ‘octopi’ was “abominable” and that the whole word ‘octopus’ should be thrown out in favor of ‘octopod,’ which is easily pluralized as ‘octopods’ (106).

Thirty years later, in 1906, two men write in separately to a magazine called New Scientist to debate, once again, proper pluralization. The first man, E. L. Haste, is actually writing about the use of data vs datum. He brings in octopi as an example of a word usage that he is “shocked by” and states later that he would like it if all loanwords would adopt standard English plurals (41). The second man, H. D. Johnson is concerned solely with the plural of octopus and hippopotamus, which is also Greek. Johnson criticizes a Mr. Barlow who reportedly greatly dislikes the use of ‘hippopotamuses’ and would prefer the use of Latin ‘hippopotami.’ He asks if the man would prefer the use of octopodes for the plural of octopus since it’s Greek, but firmly states that he would prefer the plural of ‘octopuses’ since it is the English pluralization (1906:41). Johnson feels that using the Latin plural is showing a sense of superiority as he states, “No sir! “Octopuses” and “hippopotamuses” for me, and a little less damned superiority” (41). Another book from the same timeframe refers to ‘octopi’ as “an amusing fictitious plural” (Coll. 1904:93).

It is also the early 1900s when the word ‘octopodes’ makes its first and last appearance in Chronicling America’s newspaper database. Both instances appear in the San Francisco call of 1908. The first is on October 5 and the second on November 27. Neither have anything to do with actually referring to more than one octopus. The snippet from the first paper reads “What on earth or anywhere else are “octopi”? Is it possible our great and good friend mistakes “octopus” for a Latin word on account of its deceptive termination? It is Greek, and, “by right,” should be spelled octopous. If our friend wishes to be alarmingly and distressingly classical let him try octopodes for the plural, allee samee “antipodes.” However, octopuses is a good enough plural and is used by all who do not wish to be considered eccentric.” (Simpson, ed. Oct. 1908:6). Once again, ‘octopuses’ and its conformity to English pluralization rules seems to win out against the Greek and Latin based plurals. The next paper is contains a very peculiar article indeed. This article seeks to point out that ‘octopi’ is an incorrect plural and suggests that ‘octopodes’ is not used “in consideration of space.” It also refers to ‘octopi’ as an evil plural that has “infected the editor of Colliers’ Weekly” (Simpson, ed. Nov. 1908:4). There seems to be a metalinguistic view expressed here that says that people who use the Latin and Greek plurals are arrogant.

The mood changes later when, in 1964, someone by the name of Stephen F. Maron writes in to Boy’s Life to complain that in a previous article that the word ‘octopuses’ was used multiple times. This, he says, is incorrect. The correct plural is ‘octopi,’ which he was taught about in the third grade. The reply to this comment comes from “Pedro,” a donkey who is the mascot of the write-in page, who reports that actually there are three plurals to octopus: ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi,’ and ‘octopodes’ and that they are all correct. This is the first time that it is suggested to not only use ‘octopuses’ and ‘octopi,’ but also ‘octopodes.’

III. Latin Revival and ‘Octopi’

So, for those who are in favor of ‘octopi,’ why is giving an English word a Latin plural so important? According to Anne Kingston of McLean’s, “Latin hones cerebral muscles” and is a “formal, stately language” (2013). Another article about Latin in Maine suggests that the study of this ancient language improves SAT scores because it helps kids to learn logic and understand English (Press-Herald 2007). Pushing Latin to the side for a moment, one should recall the numerous studies that tout these health benefits from learning any second language (NEA Research 2007). This love for Latin may be born out of popular views of Roman society, where the general public mostly learns about Julius Caesar, Virgil, and other well-known ‘good’ Roman figures. If instead people only learned about the slaves, dictators, and gladiators of Rome, it might become an ugly language based on context alone (Bauer and Trudgill 1998:91). Nonetheless, the importance of Latin in the minds of some has caused the octopi vs. octopuses war to rage onwards.

IV. Modern Uses

Many times, strange grammatical beliefs and pseudo rules are born out of grammar books and the things kids are taught at school. To see if this is true, the place to look is in children’s grammar books. Google books turned up three of these such books right away upon searching for ‘the plural of octopus’ in 21st century books. Amazingly, they all had a different thing to say about the answer. The first book, Primary Grammar Word and Study: Ages 7-8, clearly states that “the plural of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses’ but may also be ‘octopi’” (R.I.C. Publications 2008:46). The next book, Nonfiction Reading, Grade 5 contends that statement with an assertion that the correct plural is octopi (Foster 2011:61). No mention of the plural ‘octopuses’ is made. Yet the third book, Laugh and Learn Grammar, tells its readers that the plural form is ‘octopuses’ (Housel 2007:9)! What about octopus and octopodes? They are not in these grammar books. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘octopodes’ is a rare usage (2006), so it is not likely to show up in a kid’s grammar book. As for ‘octopus’ (plural), it is not even mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not mean the form is not out there, but perhaps simply more uncommon even than ‘octopodes.’

Another source from which many receive grammar help, although often enough incorrect, is Microsoft Word’s spellcheck. If one was viewing this document in its original Microsoft Word format, it would be easy to see which plurals Microsoft word prefers. Every time the word ‘octopodes’ appears in this paper, it is underlined with a red squiggly line telling the author that this word is incorrectly spelled (Microsoft 2010). Spellcheck suggests that it be shortened to ‘octopod,’ which according to some is yet another plural for octopus, although most dictionaries would say that octopod is “any of an order (Octopoda) of cephalopod mollusks (as an octopus or argonaut) that have eight arms bearing sessile suckers” (Merriam-Webster) which would include cuttlefish. Newspapers in Chronicling America confirm this, referring mostly to cuttlefish within the context of octopod (Library of Congress). Perhaps ironically, in the comments section on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry, one person states that they looked the word up because their daughter seemed to think it was the plural of octopus (Chester via Merriam-Webster).

For those that need grammar help later in life, or simply want to learn science or cleverness, there are books geared towards adults that seek to pluralize octopus in the “correct” way. Ben Pridmore, author of How to Be Clever (2008:67), agrees with Laugh and Learn Grammar’s octopuses. What makes this book so peculiar is that it has nothing to do with grammar. How to Be Clever is a book about doing things like multiplying long numbers, taking square roots, playing blackjack, and ironically, how to be creative. None of these things are grammar. The octopus footnote comes out of the blue. In fact, all of the footnotes in the book seem to be completely unrelated to the page’s subject. So why pick the plural of octopus? He has some very strong feelings on this matter, not just on the improperness of the word octopi, but on the improperness of ‘octopodes.’ People who use ‘octopodes,’ he argues, “…are just being silly” (Pridmore 2008:67). Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary also agrees with the octopuses, although Elster tells us that ‘octopodes’ was used more in the past than it is now, which Google’s NGram viewer does show to be true, with its tiny flare of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s (Table A). However, they suggest that one should only use octopuses and that ‘octopi’ is improper (Elster 2009). A science book from 1987, Life of Southern California, is more liberal than its grammar book counterparts, suggesting that people choose any of the three plurals and use them, as they all work just fine. The author, Hinton, adds here one more plural: octopus (1987:122). Another science book about only octopuses, Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, uses the word octopuses, stating, again, that ‘octopi’ is an improper pluralization of a Greek loanword. (Mather, Anderson, & Wood 2013). As a second language learner in Japan seeking to successfully make it through an interview, the correct plural is given as ‘octopi’ (Ishii 2008:174).

The discussion of whether or not to use ‘octopi’ has even invaded modern fiction. The most well-known of these modern fictional sources is the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. When James Bond is speaking to titular character Octopussy about the origin of her nickname, she states that her Uncle studied ‘octopi.’ While there is no argument between her and Bond about the word, its usage here is significant: the writers chose to use the word ‘octopi’ rather than ‘octopuses.’ In a film of the Bond series’ popularity, the word is sure to catch on even more. The other two sources are recently published fiction novels that appear to be relatively unknown, based on a complete lack of Amazon, Google Books, and Goodreads reviews. Their lack of popularity, however, does not discount the fact that the authors chose to mention this pluralization debate. The first book, Devil’s Tag, author John Schaeffer has his character wonder about the correct plural of octopus, among other things, eventually deciding that he preferred to use ‘octopuses’ despite the fact that he hated English and ‘octopi’ sounded more like pie and he liked pie (2012). The second book, Death in Pozzuoli, involves a man asking someone to check the plural of octopus for the title of a lecture titled “Octopuses in the mentality of Greece and Rome” as he believes the plural of octopus to be ‘octopi’ and he does not “trust psychologist practitioners with English grammar” (Evans 2009:53). Later, one of the characters mentions that he does not use ‘octopi’ because he does not want to “parade his learning” (Evans 2009:91). He is then introduced to speak by the same man who was conflicted about the plural earlier who proceeds to emphasize the ‘pi’ in octopi (92). One line conveys this perfectly: “Fordham sat down, having emphasized his grammatical point in a stentorian voice…” (92). In both its use in a James Bond film by a sophisticated woman and its clear preferential treatment in Death in Pozzuoli, the use of ‘octopi’ almost seems to be conveying a sense of elite-ness and superiority. In contrast, the use of ‘octopuses’ in Devil’s Tag seems to say that people who use it are less concerned with grammar than people who use ‘octopi.’ Obviously, the authors’ metalinguistic views about the plural of octopus are strong enough to warrant inclusion in fiction writing.

V. Outside of Literature

The word ‘octopi’ also seems to get a lot of use from people who would use it in a satirical or pun-like manner. One example of this come from 2012’s Occupy Wall Street Movement. Some people got creative with the sounds of ‘occupy’ and ‘octopi,’ and, upon finding the two words to be similar made a silly image with invertebrates seeking taxonomic equality (Image A, Dehavelle 2012). In addition to ‘octopi’ Wall Street, another person noted the ‘pi’ ending [read π] of the plural and the ‘octo’ [meaning eight] on the front of the word and combined the two to create ‘octo- π’ or an eight-legged version of the Greek letter ‘pi’ (Image B, ZeroGtees 2010). Octopi is seen almost as a ‘fun’ word that can be played with, more so than ‘octopuses,’ although the whole argument has been made fun of by Jon Wilkins who drew a fun flowchart detailing how to choose the correct plural. Only one path leads to ‘octopi’ and ‘octopuses’ and they both show up together to be used interchangeably (Image C, Wilkins 2012).


Image A (Dehavelle 2012)


Image B (ZeroGtees 2010)


Image C (Wilkins 2012)


VI. What People Use in Daily Life

So, do people actually use these plurals or is it all a lot of noise about nothing? Do their reasons have anything to do with being scientifically literate or obsession with grammar? Or perhaps the knowledge of Greek or Latin shapes their choice? Using Google Documents, a survey was sent out to about 50 Wayne State University students, 14 of whom replied (Table C). These students were told that a paper was being done on the plural of octopus. The majority, 50 percent, reported ‘octopi.’ Other answers included octopuses, with four submissions, and ‘octopies,’ ‘octopus,’ and ‘octopusi,’ each with only one submission. 3 out of 4 of the ‘octopuses’ here replied that grammar was only ‘somewhat’ important, while 5 of the 7 ‘octopi’ respondents replied that grammar was ‘very’ important (Table C). Perhaps, then, the importance of grammar has a bearing on which plural is chosen. This survey, with its small response size and large non-response bias can hardly provide answers for the Metro-Detroit area, much less the whole world, but it does offer some insight into what modern day people think about the issue.


Table C

Later, the same survey was posted publically on a deviantArt profile page, where anyone who viewed the profile page could view and complete the survey. No one was told what was for aside from school. It was also posted on two Facebook pages, where friends and family of the people who posted it could view and complete the survey. Since most of the deviantArt watchers are also known people, albeit from around the world, this survey was entirely non-random. This time the survey turned up 62.5 percent in favor of only ‘octopi,’ counting three entries that also read octopi but are spelled in a non-standard manner. 29.2 percent responded ‘octopuses’ (Table D). One person went so far as to list both octopuses and octopi and state that either is correct. Interestingly, of the three people who responded whose native language was not English (Dutch, Russian, French), two responded ‘octopuses,’ although one used the British English spelling of ‘octopusses.’ Largely, respondents did not know Greek or Latin. The two who did know Latin, however, responded ‘octopi’ and the one who knew Greek responded ‘octopuses.’ More data is needed to see if there is a real connection between the languages and choice of plural, but these three responses seem to indicate that there may be a connection. The other connection that this survey sought to find was whether or not the choice of plural had anything to do with how important people saw grammar. Half the people who said grammar was only ‘somewhat’ important to them answered ‘octopuses.’ Three answered ‘octopi,’ one of whom spelled it ‘octipi.’ The only other person to list grammar as ‘somewhat’ important answered that the plural was identical to the singular: ‘octopus.’ It appears, then, that there is not much of a connection between ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi’ and grammar from this point of view. However, if instead the answers of the ‘octopi’ respondents and the ‘octopuses’ respondents to ‘how important is proper grammar’ are looked at separately, there is a different story. 13 out of 15 ‘octopi’ respondents answered ‘very important,’ while only 3 out of 7 ‘octopuses’ respondents answered ‘very important’ (Table D). While, again, more data is needed before a conclusion can be reached, it does seem that the answer to the question ‘how important is proper grammar’ is connected to a person’s choice of plural. Age appears to be completely unrelated. Upon making this survey another hypothesis was that people who had a science background would be less likely to pick ‘octopi.’ This proved to be untrue and again seemingly unrelated, as 40 percent of ‘octopi’ respondents were not in science related fields, while 60 percent are. It was almost split evenly with the ‘octopuses’ respondents (Table D). It may still be worth revisiting the issue, but instead separating each scientific discipline into its own category. This may yield clearer results.


Table D

VII. Opinions About the Various Plurals

Along these same lines, what do other people think about why people use the plurals they use, and what do the people who use them think about the words themselves? One blogpost had some very strong metalinguistic views about not only the plurals, but the people who use them as well. This blog was written in response to a video by Merriam-Webster about the correct plural of octopus, where the editor said it would be find to use any of the three: ‘octopuses,’ ‘octopi,’ and ‘octopodes.’ (heraclitus 2010 and Merriam-Webster). According to the blogger who goes by ‘heraclitus’ there are five kinds of people in the octopus plural world: “1. People who think octopuses is best because it comes naturally, like children think foots is an acceptable plural of foot, instead of feet. 2. People who like octopuses because it sounds like the Bond film Octopussy. 3. People who use octopi because it seems like the way we deal with words …[ending]… in -us, like alumnus/alumni. 4. People who use octopodes because they think it has a better historical basis (to be explained below). 5. People who think octopodes sounds silly and pedantic, and octopi is wrong, so they settle on octopuses. (Many dictionary and style guides go this route.)” (heraclitus 2010). Of all of these people, heraclitus argues, only those from reason two are right and that anyone who use ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’ for reasons four and five are being arrogant. In addition, heraclitus says that since ‘octopus’ is a word coined by Carolus Linnaeus that there is no proper Greek or Latin plural since the word is neither Greek nor Latin (2010). They conclude, then, that the proper plural is ‘octopuses.’ However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, octopus is derived “from Greek oktopous, literally “eight-footed,” from okto “eight” (see eight) + pous “foot” (see foot (n.))” (Harper 2014). In response to this blog, a commenter named Joe mentioned that ‘octopus’ is a Latinized word that he believed may have been assigned to the third declination of Latin, which would make ‘octopi’ correct. Another commenter, C. Guerra said that using ‘octopodes’ does not make one smug. She or he uses ‘octopodes’ since they like the way it sounds and it saves them from arguing with those who will correct ‘octopuses’ to ‘octopi.’ Another person said based on the evidence provided in the blog that ‘octopi’ must be the correct plural since Linnaeus must have invented it for use with Latin (heraclitus, comments 2010).

VIII. Conclusion

In the end, people have a lot of different ideas about what the plural of octopus should be, and why. Many feel that ‘octopi’ and ‘octopodes’ are used by those who feel superior to others, while some would contend that with the beauty and formality of Latin or the historical basis for Greek. Whatever the reason, the word ‘octopus’ has begotten almost as many plural forms as legs. If, instead of trying to decide on one ‘correct’ form and forcing others to go along, people realized that there are thousands of different ways to say the same thing and that these ways are constantly changing there would be a lot less argument over a matter that seems rather odd to be arguing about in the first place. Besides, has anyone ever asked an octopus what it thinks?


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