Last week I wrote about the sense of profound relief felt by so many of us as the US government puts itself back on a more rational track. Since then, I’ve experienced the strange phenomenon of not feeling an urgent need to check the news (or social media) every few minutes in case something crazy had happened. The cognitive load required by four years of instability and unpredictability has become evident, and now many of us must each consider what to do with that excess time and energy.

Obviously, much of it should go into continuing to stay safe during the ongoing pandemic, particularly at a time where patience seems to have run out for so many. Anything left over, I’ve decided to devote to things that bring me joy, such as language and the natural world, or in this case, the intersection of the two.

Below, a fun overview of the biology of octopuses, or octopi. Or should that be “octopodes”? Here, the challenge: Is the right plural form the one that follows Latin, English, or Greek (as “octopus” is originally a Greek word)? The folks at Merriam Webster offer some thoughts on the subject, including the rule of thumb that, “if English gets the opportunity to trip you up, it will.”

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


10 Thoughts on "Channeling Your Newfound Cognitive Surplus — What’s the Correct Plural Form of “Octopus”?"

I would have thought that, being a good OUP chap, David would have taken his lead from Fowler’s. Fowler’s Modern English Usage: the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses; octopi is misconceived; and octopodes pedantic.

Thanks David! I also appreciate Bryan Garner’s take on this plural in Modern American Usage. Going back to my copyediting days, I have always enjoyed the technical correctness (in my view) of “octopodes,” contrasted with the recognition that I would never bring myself to actually use that term except in delightful forums (fora?) such as this. It also comes down to whether one falls into the descriptivist or the prescriptivist camp. In any case, my preference is “octopuses,” and I have always had a distaste for “octopi.”

One of my favourite classes as an undergrad was with Martin Wells, grandson of HG Wells, who was a world authority on cephalopods and a very entertaining lecturer; he left me with a deep respect for our future invertebrate overlords. Like Gabriel, the editorial technician in me loves “octopodes”, but I would plump for “octopuses” in regular English usage. “Octopi” is just daft; why not “octopeaux” if we’re just making the ending up?

David: I enjoy and learn from the variety of stimulating conversations on thus forum, but I would suggest that all contributors refrain from opining on politics. You could have simply opened this discussion with: “Last week I wrote about the sense of profound relief felt by so many of us as the US government puts itself back on a NEW track.” and then go into the subject of your piece.

Thanks for the comment Andrea. I’m not sure that it’s possible to separate out politics from the subjects we cover on this blog. The scholarly communication community exists to drive the spread of knowledge, and we are under assault from political and societal forces actively working to thwart that mission. The need for trustworthy, curated, and accurate information has, and is likely to continue to dominate the conversation as we understand how better to combat the spread of misinformation and propaganda. On a smaller scale, our community is increasingly subject to conditions and requirements from governmental agencies and other political figures (see Plan S, the Holdren Memo, last week’s Executive Order on the independence of government scientists ability to make public their research results). We do not stand apart from society, what we do is an important part of society, and we can’t pretend to be outside of or unaffected by society.

This is largely an opinion blog, often more akin to the editorial page of a newspaper than the news sections, so expect opining. In the last two weeks alone, we’ve had posts on foreign governments attacking libraries (, the power of words to inspire societal/political change (, combating rampant misinformation and demagoguery (, the ongoing civil rights struggle (, and the historical perspective on recent political events ( This blog is going to be a place where political opinions are voiced — we can’t really discuss the issues our community faces without acknowledging them. Ideally it will be in a context that is relevant to our community, and I don’t think it would be a good policy to restrict our authors in what they can write about out of fear of upsetting someone who disagrees with them.

I agree with David first of all that this is an opinion blog.

I really do appreciate your point, Andrea, that it might be preferable and certainly a relief to leave politics out of some arenas. I don’t engage explicit political arguments on social media or elsewhere really, but that doesn’t mean I think we can ignore the explicit degradation of science. David’s key word in the sentence you point to is “rational.” That’s about knowledge production that puts evidence and process at the fore–which is very contrary to what we have seen the last years in the US. It has been shocking, but we shouldn’t turn away from it, or think that if we don’t name it it doesn’t exist. And it doesn’t mean that we all agree about policies per say.

I also agree with David. In addition to the thoughts outlined above, I would also add that, as publishers, we are gatekeepers and protectors of information – in fact, many of us have to take decisions on a daily basis about whether something should be published or not. Much of this decision making is based on the source – do we think it’s a trustworthy / authoritative one? I would explicitly say that the Trump administration posed a significant danger to what we are trying to achieve in scholarly communications, with the normalising of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’ undermining traditional, regulated information sources. This directly undermines what we try to do in our industry – i.e. make sure that we have properly structured publishing processes and policies, regulated by treaties such as the International Copyright Convention. We – of course – have a long way to go to decrease biases in scholarly communications (and this struggle has been discussed at length on these pages), but, from a professional point of view, I very much feel our industry is better served by a US administration who puts logical, reasoned argument (whether you agree with what is being said or not) at the forefront of its communications agenda. Biden made the point himself in his inauguration speech. When we are in a situation where the mainstream media regularly finds factual inaccuracies with what the President of the United States is saying (as has happened throughout the last 4 years), it undermines public confidence in expert communications, which in turn undermines the work we are doing within the scholarly comms industry. I think the conspiracy theories that have surrounded the pandemic within the past year are a good -example of that. The knock-on effects of that are – literally in the Covid sense – tragic.

Thank you, David, for a delightful commentary on forming plurals of words that have colonized the English language, albeit one at a time. Can’t we please keep all three plurals? I can’t wait to use “octopodes,” correctly pronounced to rhyme with “Don’t say that, please,” in the presence of my classics-major nephew.

Thank you, David! Can you opine on the correct plural of the crocus or, even more pressingly, the singular of panini?

Crocuses (although I’m tempted by croctopodes) and panini has achieved the same one-word-for-singular-and-plural Schrodinger’s Cat status as the word “data”.

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