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October 4th, 2006

Juried / the plural of octopus

by Barbara Wallraff

Dorothy H. Campbell, of Blue Hill, Maine, writes: “Which year did we start using the word ‘juried,’ meaning to judge works of art, etc.? Not all dictionaries list this word.”

Dear Dorothy: When you say that not all dictionaries list “juried,” I wonder if you mean they don’t have an entry for, exactly, “juried.” If so, you’re right -- of four American dictionaries I checked for you, only Webster’s New World has one. But that doesn’t mean the word doesn’t exist or is poor usage. Most dictionaries don’t have entries for, say, “judged” either. Dictionary makers intend for you to look up “judge” and “jury” and note that they can be verbs as well as nouns (“The judge judged the case,” “The jury juried the show”). A particular dictionary may give all verbs’ past tenses and past participles (“judged,” “juried”) under what’s called the headword. Or it may include these verb forms only when they’re irregular (for instance, “teach,” “taught”; “speak,” “spoke,” “have spoken”). In effect, then, you’re asking when people started using the noun “jury” (“a jury of one’s peers,” “a jury of museum curators”) also as a verb (“The show will be juried by curators”). According to
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, it happened in or before 1947. The noun has been with us since the 15th century -- so the verb is, relatively speaking, an infant. But, of course, more than a half-century’s use is plenty to establish it as standard.

Beth Coats, of West Olive, Mich., writes: “A friend of mine has challenged my usage of ‘octopi.’ My elementary-school teachers taught me that ‘octopi’ was the plural of ‘octopus.’ This was set in stone in my memory. Recently this young man brought in a small dictionary showing ‘-pi’ as the second and therefore a ‘defunct’ use -- his word. Was it ever the preferred usage? Is the plural listed first the more correct one, or only the more common?”

Dear Beth: I’m not in favor of “octopi” as the plural of “octopus” (I’ll explain why in a moment), but it’s hardly defunct. When dictionaries give two plurals, they generally mean that both are perfectly fine unless the dictionary lists one of them after the word “also.” Even then, they probably just mean that the version after “also” is less common -- as they’ll tell you in the how-to-use-this-dictionary section that appears in tiny type up front. Unfortunately, practices vary from one dictionary to the next, so if you want to be sure of what your dictionary is trying to tell you about things like this, you’ll need to wade through that tiny type. Three of the four American dictionaries I checked say the plural of “octopus” is “‘octopuses’ or ‘octopi’” -- so according to them, you’re on safe ground. The fourth dictionary, though, is the scholarly Oxford American, and it includes this usage note: “The standard plural in English of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses.’ However, the word ‘octopus’ comes from Greek, and the Greek plural form is ‘octopodes’ (ak-TOP-a-deez). Modern usage of ‘octopodes’ is so infrequent that many people mistakenly create the erroneous plural form ‘octopi,’ formed according to rules for Latin plurals.” So if you want to be true to the word’s origin, say “octopodes” and be ready to explain yourself. And if you want to be unarguably correct, say “octopuses.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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