A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 41: Unusual plurals

Earlier today, I got this tweet from Mike Griffin:

Who’d have guessed that one? Certainly not me. (Incidentally, I will also have to admit to having to Google ‘TIL‘, which I believe I may have seen before, but at the time couldn’t quite recall what it meant). The word ethos of course means ‘character’ and according to Wiktionary, ethea is the ‘uncontracted nominative plural’, while ethe is the contracted form. The word ethos is also used to form the Greek word ethikos which means “showing moral character”, and is where we get the word ethics from today. I had not made the connection before.

Mike’s tweet inspired me to go on the hunt for some other unusual plurals, and here is what I found:


Until today, I’d probably have said that the plural of cul-de-sac was *cul-de-sacs without thinking about it. Not true. In the same way we don’t say *son-in-laws or *attorney generals, we also shouldn’t say cul-de-sacs. Instead, it’s culs-de-sac.


The word aquarium comes from the Latin root aqua, meaning ‘water’. We use it today to mean a glass tank for keeping fish and other aquatic plants. In Latin, however, the word meant “a drinking place for cattle.” While we can use the plural aquariums, the alternative plural form is aquaria, much like we can say stadiums or stadia.


The plural of rendezvous is rendezvous. No change there then. Well, that’s true to an extent. Unlike other words, such as sheep, which remain the same both in the written form and spoken form in the plural, there are a collection of French-origin words whose spelling remains the same but pronunciation differs. In the singular form, the final syllable of rendezvous is pronounced /vü/, however in the plural it is \-vüz\. Other words that are the same include faux pas and bourgeois.


The plural of graffiti?… It doesn’t have one? Oh, it’s one of those singular mass nouns, right? Well, yes, today it is often used as a mass noun, but graffiti is in fact a plural itself: the plural of graffito. Graffito is an Italian word that means an inscription on a surface, such as a wall, in a public place. Graffiti, when not being used as a mass noun, simply means two or more inscriptions on a surface in public.


The plural of woman, you’ve got to be kidding, it’s women… isn’t it? Yes. It’s still women, and while most English teachers know that the plural of woman can be confusing for students because of the first vowel change as well as the second vowel change, what I found out today, is that it is the only word in English whose initial vowel changes as well as its final vowel in the plural form. Not ground-breaking, but an interesting tidbit nonetheless.


Today, we all use cows for the plural of cow, which is correct. But it didn’t used to be cows. The archaic plural of cows is kineinteresting because it is a form that has no common letters with the singular form.


Cherub is another word that has two possible plurals, the regular cherubs and cherubim. When it comes to which one to use, it often depends on the context. For the original meaning of a ‘winged angelic being’, or a representation of such a being in western art, both cherubim and cherubs are used. When used to describe a beautiful or innocent child, only the regular form cherubs is used. The word ultimately comes from Hebrew and into English via Greek and Late Latin. An interesting point is that in the King James version of the Bible, the form *cherubims is used, which as the 1913 version of Webster’s dictionary pointed out, “is an incorrect form, made by adding the English plural termination to the Hebrew plural cherubim instead of to the singular cherub.”

And cherub seems like the perfect place to finish this post because it ties us back nicely to the very inspiration for the post. “How?” you might ask. Well in researching the origin of the word cherub, I came across this little bit of information from the online etymology dictionary:

griffin (n.)
c.1200 (as a surname), from Old French grifon “a bird of prey,” also “fabulous bird of Greek mythology” (with head and wings of an eagle, body and hind quarters of a lion, believed to inhabit Scythia and guard its gold), from Late Latin gryphus, misspelling of grypus, variant of gryps (genitive grypos), from Greek gryps (genitive grypos) “curved, hook-nosed,” in reference to its beak.

Klein suggests a Semitic source, “through the medium of the Hittites,” and cites Hebrew kerubh “a winged angel,” Akkad. karibu, epithet of the bull-colossus (see cherub). The same or an identical word was used, with uncertain connections, in mid-19c. Louisiana to mean “mulatto” (especially one one-quarter or two-fifths white) and in India from late 18c. to mean “newly arrived European.”

Image courtesy of Dominic's pics on Flickr

Image courtesy of Dominic’s pics on Flickr

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2015 by in Language and tagged , , , .


February 2015

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