Lexiculture: octopi

Kayla Niner

Wayne State University

Cite as: Niner, Kayla. 2016. Octopi. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 6. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/octopi.pdf.

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

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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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