Sunday, 9 September 2007

Out on a limb

Why tripod, but octopus?

17 comments:

Martin Kingsley said...

Well, according to my dictionary, the Greek 'pod', for foot, is interchangeable with the Greek 'pous', which also means 'foot', and, as such, there existed another form of 'tripod', written as 'tripous'.

I also see here the archaic Greek plural of octopus is octopodes, so I think it's one of those strange etymological mutants. Like the silent letters in 'through', which is as far as I and Eddie Izzard are concerned, is a case of the ridiculous and an exercise in cheating at Scrabble.

Blame the Latin translators, the bastards. Or else you already knew this and you are testing the knowledge of us faithful readers. What do I win?

nailpolishblues said...

You win our applause, Martin. Can you hear it yet?

Martin Kingsley said...

Nay, for I's deaf. If 'tis sufficient applause, can I maybe, pretty please, have it converted into a Bentley?

Martin Kingsley said...

Or even a Hyundai? A trike? Or even, dare I say it, a pogo stick? I'm not picky!

nailpolishblues said...

Aw, sweetie, if I could clap a car into being I think I'd make you pay for the privilege. Keep hoping though.

alexis said...

With dictionary perusing skills like these, who needs pogo sticks?

Not to diminish your research achievement, MK, not one jot, but I know "pod" and "pous" come from the same word ("pous" is the nominative case, and "pod" is the stem of the genitive case - got that?). What I want to know is whether there's some principle governing when English invokes "pod" or "pus" - or, indeed, Latin "ped".

So, we have "monopod" (one footed thing, i.e., hermanphroditic banana slug, from the Greek), "biped" (two footed thing, i.e., humanian being, from the Latin), "tripod" (three footed thing, i.e., telescope stand, from the Greek), "quadruped" (four footed thing, i.e., beagle, from the Latin), "hexapod" (six footed thing, i.e., insects, from the Greek), and then we skip to "octopus" (eight footed thing, from the Greek). Likewise "platypus" (broad footed thing, from the Greek).

Do we call spiders and scorpions octopuses? or octopods?

It seems, dare I say it, a little arbitrary.

Martin Kingsley said...

Well, after much soul/Google-searching, I am officially semi-stumped.

My last attempt at unraveling this Gordian knot of wordiness, before I go off to beat myself unconscious with a dictionary: The octopus is an octopod according to its order, octopoda, so...

We're just calling them octopuses because we're soggy and stupid human flesh-piles.

This rule can also be used to explain the retrospectively idiotic title awarded to a certain lumpy, duck-shaped creature that defies the laws of Latin, Greek, and physics.

TimT said...

Seeing as all 'pus' and 'pud' words are of Latin or Greek derivation, they'd have to have come into the English language at some point, so maybe differences in spelling and pronunciation reflect this? Certainly in the case of 'Platypus', that can't have come into wide use in the language before the 19th century - ie, the time of mass colonial settlement of Australia.

After all, the other examples given seem relatively technical and may have come into the language through association with a craft or science. 'Tripod' and 'monopod', for instance.

Incidentally, John Christophers 'Tripods' series is a cracking read, but nothing can quite top H G Wells' War of the Worlds, which has killer tripods - being driven by evil alien octopodi. (Actually, they might just be hexapods - I really can't remember.)

TimT said...

Er, I should clarify:

Certainly in the case of 'Platypus', that can't have come into wide use in the language before the 19th century - ie, the time of mass colonial settlement of Australia.

I don't actually know the history of the word 'Platypus', though it's pretty obvious that it can't have been in use at all before the later part of the 18th century - not in relation to the marsupial creature, at least.

nailpolishblues said...

The Tripods! I think I prefered The Tripods - I prefer my interstellar [okay, technically not] nasties to have personalities. Also, lacking pompus narration - what joy!

/bizarre enthusiasm for books not read in nearly 20 years

Mitzy G Burger said...

If the World Belonged to Pods ...

A gem found in UQP catalogue:
If the World Belonged to Dogs
RRP - $16.95
by Michelle A. Taylor

Fantastical nonsense, disgusting habits, the secret world of pets, and the not-so-secret world of families. Lullabies to help you sleep at night, scary poems to keep you awake.

You’ll find all of these and more in this fun and whimsical collection of poems by the acclaimed author of If Bees Rode Shiny Bicycles.

alexis said...

The earliest usage of "platypus" cited by the OED is from 1799. I'd say lots of these Greco-Roman linguistic monstrosities are from the eighteenth century. It was an age of science, nostalgia for the classics, and appalling libertinism. And then there was Wordsworth.

Martin Kingsley said...

Speaking of Ye OED, I have always lusted after this.

alexis said...

Yes, me too, though the trouble with the print OED is that it goes out of date awful quick. (I mention this as a keen neologist.)

Martin Kingsley said...

Y'know, that there is a point I had not considered up until now. Blast and damnation, that was just about the most exclusive thing I could think to own in this day and age! Now what?!

alexis said...

Maybe they publish an annual supplement, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica used to, before they went all electronicalised.

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