Fowler’s Modern English Usage takes a hard line.
Just try to pluralize the word octopus; I dare you. Say “octopodes” and Fowlers calls you “pedantic;” using the term “octopi” is simply misconceived. Fowler’s asserts that there is only one acceptable option and that is “octopuses.”
Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, disagrees. The editor suggests all three versions can be used, but only if you can defend your linguistic choice. In a YouTube video she explains that when the word octopus came into English vernacular, an English plural, “octopuses” resulted. However, a movement to simplify (and Latinize) the word produced octopi. But since the original word was Greek (not Latin), purists insisted that it begets a Greek plural, thus “octopoda.”
No matter how many you have or what you call them, the octopus reaches out for your attention. And they are more fun to watch than YouTube videos about the plural form of their name.
Octopuses (my plural preference) are savvy and smart cephalopods. Cephalopod, meaning head-footed, is the family to which they belong, and includes cuttlefish, squid and nautiluses (or is it nautili?). The word octopus means eight-footed, referring to this creature’s arms or tentacles.
These tentacles are for more than just locomotion. They provide the animal’s brain power, since two-thirds of an octopus’s neurons are located in their tentacles. Octopuses are considered the most intelligent invertebrate, and have the ability to use tools, distinguish shapes and patterns, negotiate mazes, solve puzzles and even imitate behavior.
Their intellect has even put them in their own special category. In Britain, octopuses are legally considered “honorary vertebrates,” and are afforded protections under the Animals Scientific Procedures Act of 1986 that no other invertebrate has. The law states that no experimental surgery can be performed on an octopus without anesthesia.
Intellect is not their only enviable characteristic. Octopuses are exceptional escape artists, having the ability to elude predators in a variety of ways. We all know about their ink, which when ejected creates a screen so that the octopus can get away, but the ink will also interfere with a predator’s ability to smell, confusing the chase even more.
Some octopuses prefer to hide from their aggressor, either by squeezing themselves into a crack or crevasse (sometimes through a hole as small as a dime) or by freezing in place and changing their color, shape or texture to blend in to their surroundings. In a pinch, they will use autotomy, the detaching of a limb to get away.
Sensing danger is easy for the octopus. Its eyes are exceptional, and interestingly, their pupils are horizontal (the opposite of a cat’s vertical ones) and stay horizontal relative to the horizon no matter the position of the animal. Hearing, though, is another story. Octopuses are completely deaf.
They also lost out in the longevity category. Most species of octopuses live only six months, but some survive up to a few years. And even if they evade death by predation, which would likely be quick, their final fate is, one could argue, slow and painful. The most common cause of death for this cephalopod is slow starvation caused by reproduction.
Mating is the beginning of the end for the octopus. The males die a few months after mating. The female has a job to do before her days end. She will lay eggs and spend a month protecting and fanning them (to provide oxygen to the growing embryo), but not eating. Thus, when the eggs hatch she succumbs to the starvation that has ravaged her body while she cared for her progeny.
You can give this octomom accolades for her careful and considerate care. Just don’t overdo the praise, it will only go to her head.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.