The visiopun

… visiopun being my coinage referring to a punning word presented visually — not actually said or printed, but alluded to by some striking image, usually with some lead-on hinting at the pun. An extremely simple, utterly flat-footed example of my own devising:

What do you call a US infantryman from World War I?


The image is of a small male figure made of dough, so the punning word is doughboy. (Yes, the Pillsbury Doughboy. I simplified things by using an existing image.)

Now to a complex visiopun passed on to me on Facebook today by Emily Menon Bender (the source is cited in the image):


The image is of a pie in the shape of an octopus, so the punning word is octopie (/áktǝpàj/ in my AmE variety), a play on octopi, one of the plural forms of octopus. Cute.

On the plurals of the noun octopus. The noun was borrowed into English almost 300 years ago as the name of the cephalopod, quickly becoming an everyday word, while the creature came to serve as a common metaphorical symbol, notably for grasping and rapacious Big Business. So the noun’s been thoroughly nativized, with the regular plural octopuses. (It was borrowed from (Classical) Greek; if English had borrowed its plural form as well as its singular form, that would have been octopodes, with four syllables.)

Occasionally, people have suggested to me that the two succeeding s-final syllables of octopuses are somewhat awkward, and that might lead some to search for an alternative plural form. Meanwhile, other such sequences have been untouched: sourpusses, rumpuses, campuses, circuses, porpoisesapparatuses.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, at some point some people mistakenly took octopus to be of Latin origin (and of the masculine second declension) and created the plural octopi (as above). The first octopi cites in OED3 are two 1834 uses in E. Griffith’s Cuvier’s Animal Kingdom, and then a sprinkling of cites suggesting that the form was widespread already in the 19th century. Apparently, English speakers have been using this plural variant for 150 years or so by having picked it up from others as part of the pool of variants in the language; some prefer it to octopuses for its brevity, ease of articulation, and perhaps its tinge of exoticness.

Me, I stick to octopuses, but that’s because I’m a professional linguist who knows enough about the actual etymology of octopus to feel a bit uncomfortable with octopi. But I have to admit that’s kind of silly — I have no problem with a pea when I know full well that etymology would call for a pease, with my apron when I know full well that etymology would call for my napron, and on through vast numbers of other cases.

The Merriam-Webster site gets it on the nose. (And corrects two mistaken assumptions in my account: that octopuses is the oldest usage; and that English borrowed the noun directly from Greek). After working on crafting this little piece for many hours, I have just now (at 7 pm) come across the Merriam-Webster Grammar & Usage site on “The Many Plurals of ‘Octopus'”, which briskly tells the story (and recommends that you choose octopi or octopuses according to your tastes):

Octopi appears to be the oldest of the three main plurals, dating back to the early 19th century. The -i ending comes from the belief that words of Latin origin should have Latin ending in English (while octopus may ultimately come from Greek it had a stay in New Latin before arriving here).

Octopuses (which may rarely also be found rendered as octopusses) dates from slightly later in the 19th century, and is based not so much on a belief as it is on the habit of giving English words English endings. While it may sound peculiar to some there is nothing incorrect about this formation.

… The rarest of the three, octopodes came into possession of its ending from the belief some people had that this is a Greek word and should have a Greek ending (and also from the belief that there is no word which cannot be improved by making it less comprehensible).


One Response to “The visiopun”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A Facebook exchange on 11/20:

    — Joel B. Levin: I had the idea, once that if you parsed the word as oct-opus you could give it the plural octopera.

    — AZ > JBL: The plural octopera is just lovely. Latin opus with plural opera, corpus with plural corpora, etc. (fun with the 3rd declension) are an unpleasant surprise to people who know a little bit of Latin and hope for opus to have the plural opi (hey, the plural of circus really *is* circi, like foci and loci). (I’ve always hoped that the plural of hocus-pocus could be hoci-poci, pronounced of course like hokey-pokey).

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