Terrence Lockyer


In Classics on July 14, 2012 at 6:34 pm

This is a brief note I wrote three or four years ago on the plural of “octopus”:

People will tell you that this should be “octopi”, because it is from Latin, and Latin words ending “-us” are pluralized in “-i”. This, however, ignores two facts: (1) in Latin, common words ending “-us” may belong to one of three different classes (called declensions), and while it is true that the most common class (the second declension masculine) pluralizes in “-i”, the others simply do not – the second class (third declension neuter) pluralizes in “-ra” (e. g., “opus > opera” [work], “corpus > corpora” [body], to mention two words adopted by English), while the third class has plurals spelled with “-us” like the singulars, though pronounced slightly differently; and (2) “octopus” is not originally a Latin word at all, and does not belong to any Latin class.

In fact, “octopus” comes from ancient Greek (where it could mean an eight-legged thing, specifically an octopus, or a scorpion), and contains the elements “octo” (eight) and “pous” (foot, leg: this is also found in the famous name “Oedipus”, from Greek “Oidipous”, but it is less common to pluralize personal names; and the Latin equivalent is the word “pes”, plural “pedes”, from which English gets words like “pedal” and “pedestrian”). The hyperpedantic who wish to pluralize “octopus” strictly according to derivation should therefore use the correct Greek plural, which would be “octopodes” (pronounced “ok-top-odd-es”), or in English perhaps “octopods”. For the rest of us, “octopuses” will do just fine.

Postscript (2012/07/15):  Latin does in fact have a native form equivalent to Greek “oktopous” or “oktapous” (meaning variously “eight-legged, octopus, scorpion”, referring also to crabs, and if Lucian is to be believed also the Greek form of a Skythian term for a person who owned a cart and two oxen).  The Latin form is “octipes” (octo=eight + pes=foot), and is used of crabs by authors of the Augustan era.  Its (nominative) plural would be “octipedes”;  however, English sometimes forms classically-derived words from their stems, in which case “octipeds” would be the plural.

Octopuses are shown in Roman mosaics (including several from Pompeii), but extant ancient Latin texts prior to 200 CE appear to contain no instances of a Latin form (“octopus” or “octapus”) of the Greek term “oktopous” or “oktapous”.  Instead, some Latin authors appear to use “polypus”, plural “polypi”, a form of the Greek “polupous” (polu=many + pous=foot;  plural “polupodes” or “polupoi”, the latter as if from singular “polupos”), and origin of the English word “polyp”;  which, however, now has a different zoological sense.  Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, for instance, deals with “polypi” and other marine life beginning at 9.83.

Finally, to clarify, I don’t – for a reason I shall explain – have a particular objection to the use of “octopi” as a plural of “octopus” in English, though it seems to me the least good of the possibilities.  The note above is, rather, a reaction to those who, presuming to correct others or impress with their learning, would contend that it is the sole correct plural, based on the supposed Latin form.  But the fact is that Latin writers do not always use the Greek forms of loan-words, and sometimes treat them by analogy to standard Latin forms.  The name “Oedipus” is one example of this:  although Latin writers do commonly decline it like a Greek noun (a not uncommon practice with Greek names in Latin literature, since knowledge of Greek was not unusual for an educated, especially a literary, Roman;  and Latin literature is deeply influenced by Greek), in both Plautus and even Cicero (long considered a model of Latin style and usage) there are cases where it is treated as if it were a Latin masculine name of the second declension (although Cicero also treats it elsewhere as a Greek form:  one might speculate as to whether the inconsistency is his own, possibly for reasons of style or rhythm, or has arisen during the transmission of his works, and if so what his own normal usage was).  The Latin “polypus”, plural “polypi”, follows the same pattern.  If “Oedipus” and “polypus” can be treated this way by “good” authors, so can “octopus”;  and since English “octopus” is a Latinized form of the Greek, there is no reason it should not behave like Greek loan-words in Latin;  however, it remains fundamentally mistaken to assert that “octopi” is the sole correct plural in English.


Testamentum Porcelli – A Little Pig’s Will

In Classics on April 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I was reminded of this late Latin text, the will of a young pig (onto which various interpretations have been placed), by a friend’s link to the Wikipedia article on the ‘Pig stele of Edessa‘.  Having put together this text, translation, and a few notes for my own purposes, I thought them worth posting in case they were of use to others.


Incipit testamentum porcelli.

M. Grunnius Corocotta porcellus testamentum fecit. quoniam manu mea scribere non potui, scribendum dictavi.

Magirus cocus dixit ‘veni huc, eversor domi, solivertiator, fugitive porcelle, et hodie tibi dirimo vitam’. Corocotta porcellus dixit ‘si qua feci, si qua peccavi, si qua vascella pedibus meis confregi, rogo, domine coce, vitam peto, concede roganti’. Magirus cocus dixit ‘transi, puer, affer mihi de cocina cultrum, ut hunc porcellum faciam cruentum”. porcellus comprehenditur a famulis, ductus sub die XVI kal. lucerninas, ubi abundant cymae, Clibanato et Piperato consulibus. et ut vidit se moriturum esse, horae spatium petiit et cocum rogavit, ut testamentum facere posset. clamavit ad se suos parentes, ut de cibariis suis aliquid dimittere eis. qui ait:

‘patri meo Verrino Lardino do lego dari glandis modios XXX, et matri meae Veturinae Scrofae do lego dari Laconicae siliginis modios XL, et sorori meae Quirinae, in cuius votum interesse non potui, do lego dari hordei modios XXX. et de meis visceribus dabo donabo sutoribus saetas, rixoribus capitinas, surdis auriculas, causidicis et verbosis linguam, bubulariis [=botulariis?] intestina, isiciariis femora, mulieribus lumbulos, pueris vesicam, puellis caudam, cinaedis musculos, cursoribus et venatoribus talos, latronibus ungulas. et nec nominando coco legato dimitto popiam et pistillum, quae mecum attuleram: de Tebeste usque ad Tergeste liget sibi collum de reste. et volo mihi fieri monumentum ex litteris aureis scriptum: ‘M. Grunnius Corocotta porcellus vixit annis DCCCC.XC.VIIII.S. quod si semissem vixisset, mille annos implesset’. optimi amatores mei vel consules vitae, rogo vos ut cum corpore meo bene faciatis, bene condiatis de bonis condimentis nuclei, piperis et mellis, ut nomen meum in sempiternum nominetur.  mei domini vel consobrini mei, qui testamento meo interfuistis, iubete signari’.

Lardio signavit. Ofellicus signavit. Cyminatus signavit. Lucanicus signavit. Tergillus signavit. Celsinus signavit. Nuptialicus signavit.

explicit testamentum porcelli sub die XVI kal. lucerninas Clibanato et Piperato consulibus feliciter.


Here begins the will of the piglet.

M. Grunnius Corocotta[1] the piglet made this will.  Because I was not able to write it with my own hand, I gave dictation to be written down.

Magirus[2] the cook said, ‘Come here, destroyer of the home, soil-rooter, runaway piglet, and today I will end your life!’  Corocotta the piglet said, ‘If I have done anything, if I have done wrong in any way, if I have trampled any little pots under my feet, I ask, my lord cook, I beg for my life;  grant what I ask.’  Magirus the cook said, ‘Go, boy, and bring me a blade from the kitchen, that I may make this piglet bleed.’  The piglet was seized by the servants, taken on the 16th day before the kalends of the lamps, when the greens flourish, in the consulship of Clibanatus and Piperatus.[3]  And when he saw that he was going to die, he pleaded and asked the cook for an hour’s grace, that he might make his will.  He summoned to himself his parents, that he might bequeath them something from his foodstore.  And he said:

‘To my father Verrinus Lardinus I give and bequeath 30 measures of acorns, and to my mother Veturina Scrofa I give and bequeath 40 measures of Laconian white wheat, and to my sister Quirina, in whose marriage I cannot be involved, I give and bequeath 30 measures of barley.[4]  And from my body I shall give and contribute to the cobblers my bristles, to quarrelers my head-parts, to the deaf my ears, to lawyers and the wordy my tongue, to sausage-makers my intestines, to makers of meat products my thighs, to women my little loins, to boys my bladder, to girls my tail, to poofters my muscles, to runners and hunters my ankles, to brigands my hooves.[5]  And to the cook-who-may-not-be-named I assign as a legacy the soup-ladle and pestle, which I have borne with me;  from Tebeste as far as Tergeste let him bind them by a rope about his neck.  And I desire to be made for me a monument written in gilded letters:  “M. Grunnius Corocotta the piglet lived 900 and 90 and 9 and a half years.  Had he lived another half, he would have completed a thousand years.”  You who love me best or care for my life, I ask that you handle my body well, that you embalm it well with a good seasoning of nuts, pepper, and honey, that my name may be spoken for all time.  My lords or my relations, who were present at the making of my will, I instruct you to sign.’

Lardio signed.  Ofellicus signed.  Cyminatus signed.  Lucanicus signed. Tergillus signed.  Celsinus signed.  Nuptialicus signed.[6]

Here ends the will of the piglet on the 16th day before the kalends of the lamps, when Clibanatus and Piperatus were fortunate to be consuls.


[1]  The name may mean something like Grunter Roastpig;  but Corocotta is also the name of a known bandit, mentioned in Cassius Dio 56.43.3, and the word itself means some kind of wild animal, perhaps a hyena.

[2]  Magirus = Cook.

[3]  The names of the family all have porcine elements:  ‘verrinus’ is an adjective to do with boars, pigs, and pork;  ‘lardum’ is pig-fat;  ‘Veturina’ suggests ‘vetus’, meaning “aged”;  ‘scrofa’ is a breeding-sow, but also found as a name, presumably based on occupation;  ‘Quirina’ was a Roman name, but may also suggest Greek ‘khoiros’, a pig (also used as slang for the female genitals).

[4]  Clibanatus seems related to ‘clibanus’, an oven or a vessel for baking bread;  Piperatus means “seasoned with pepper, peppery”.

[5]  Some of the body parts also have sexual connotations:  ‘vesica’ is both the bladder and a term for female genitals;  ‘cauda’ means both “tail” and “penis” (like ‘penis’ itself);  and it is likely that a similar connotation attaches to the ‘musculos’ left the ‘cinaedis’ (a term, generally of abuse, for a man thought effeminate in both manner and sexual behaviour;  to which ‘poof[ter]’ or ‘faggot’ is perhaps the closest English equivalent).

[6]  The witnesses all have names suggesting food:  Lardio seems related to ‘lardum’ (pig-fat), Offellicus suggests ‘ofella’ (a morsel;  though Ofella and Ofellus are both attested as names), Cyminatus means ‘seasoned with cumin’, Lucanicus is a type of sausage, ‘tergilla’ is pork-rind, and Nuptialicus suggests a wedding-feast.  The reference of Celsinus is not clear, but ‘celsus’ can mean simply “lofty, elevated, eminent”, so the word could conceivably imply delicacies or fancy cooking (something like “haute cuisine”).


The Latin text given here is based on that of F. Buecheler, Petronii Satirae et Liber Priapeorum. Third edition (Berlin : Weidmann 1882), pp. 241-2.  I include in brackets, and translate, Haupt’s suggestion of ‘botulariis’ for ‘bubulariis’.  Buecheler’s edition is available online at http://archive.org/details/petroniisatirae00arbigoog

There is also a slightly different, and in places erroneous (e. g., ‘colum’ for ‘collum’, ‘vei’ for ‘mei’), text at http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/testamentum.html

I have benefited from looking at Graham Anderson, ‘The Cognomen of M. Grunnius Corocotta:  A Dissertatiuncula on Roast Pig’, The American Journal of Philology 101.1 (Spring 1980) 57-58;  Edward Champlin, ‘The Testament of the Piglet’, Phoenix 41.2 (Summer 1987) 174-183; and Jean-Jacques Aubert, ‘”Du lard ou du cochon”?  The Testamentum Porcelli as a Jewish Anti-Christian Pamphlet’, in Jean-Jacques Aubert and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi (edd.), A Tall Order.  Writing the Social History of the Ancient World.  Essays in Honor of William V. Harris (Munich : KG Saur Verlag 2005) 107-141.

Translation and notes by Terrence Lockyer
Johannesburg, South Africa
2012-04-20, 09h45 GMT+2

Archives: Why digital needs physical

In General on July 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm

In a recent New York Times piece, James Gleick offers a good response to Tristram Hunt’s Observer column attacking the use of digital archives by historians.

What Gleick doesn’t address here – and there’s no particular reason he should, since it’s a short piece with a different focus – are (at least) three real issues related to digitization of library and archival materials:-

1.) We live in a time of aggressive, many would argue philistine, diminution of budgets for the arts and humanities, and for libraries. Institutions are being forced to justify their existence and their funding in crude economic terms: how many people came through the doors, how many people used the facilities, how much income there was from rights payments (even if, as a 2004 report argues on p. 35, museums’ rights departments often do not even recover the costs of their own existence), and so on. The availability of high quality digital reproductions, as it is intended to do, widens access and reduces the numbers who need to visit the physical original; in itself also a good thing for conservation, since handling is the single greatest everyday danger to rare, fragile, and old documents. But digital availability wil inevitably reduce the numbers of physical visitors that libraries and archives are expected to produce to justify their funding, and in some cases their existence, not to mention the hiring of trained, specialized people to do the basic work that will remain essential before and that continues alongside the ever better quality digital reproductions. This is not an argument against digital archives at all; it is an argument for developing new criteria of what an archive is for, and how its contribution is measured in the eyes of funding bodies. Because physical archives of pre-digital materials don’t become less necessary as digitization progresses; they become more so, because in addition to their old functions, they become the sources that are essential for future digitization when current standards, methods, or formats are no longer good enough and it becomes necessary to go back to the original.

2.) While the availability of digital reproductions in itself is of enormous value both to the general public and to specialists, the fact that budgets are not infinite inevitably leads to selection based on institutional (or other) priorities. This raises the question of what gets left out. The larger the pre-digital archive, the more likely that something significant lies unnoticed, and because current digitization projects often prioritize what is agreed to be important, the less likely that individual overlooked item will be high on the list of things to be digitized. This is related to the issue of metadata quality: unless you know what’s in your archive (physical or digital), and it’s well catalogued, there’s a good chance of important things simply not being visible. Again, this isn’t an argument against digitization; it’s an argument for the value of well-funded, professionally run archives to do the preliminary work, and to maintain materials against the day when somebody realizes the importance of the previously unconsidered; and it’s an argument for making students, especially in the historical and related disciplines, aware that the increasing extent of digital archives doesn’t render physical collections obsolete or unimportant.

3.) No matter how extensive and good digital reproductions, there remain some questions that can’t be answered without the physical original. What paper was used, what ink, what pigments, what techniques. As digital technology progresses, we acquire more and more tools to address those questions, and others previous generations weren’t even able to ask. The average modern desktop or laptop computer possesses image enhancement tools that were once the province of specialized labs. Texts (palimpsests, scrolls from Herculaneum) that were once unreadable have become partly or wholly so through new photographic and other methods. What this argues is not that digital reproductions are less worthwhile, but that it’s even more important to practise high quality conservation, against the day we shall want to examine original documents in ways we haven’t even considered yet, with tools that haven’t been invented yet.

In sum, and as with digital materials in general, it seems to me that too much discussion is in terms of polar opposites:  libraries or online archives;  ebooks or print;  digitized sources or physical ones.  All of these oppositions strike me as misleading, mistaken, and even dangerous.  Digital archives aren’t an alternative to physical ones, but a means by which the contents of physical archives can be brought to wider audiences with less risk to fragile originals;  while physical archives remain essential to the existence of digital, because without them, and their specialist staff and techniques, there would and will be far fewer materials, is far less good condition, to form the basis of digitization projects.  The real question is not a debate between the two, but rather what purposes (and audiences) are best served by what kind of archive;  and how best to preserve the valuable and still necessary physical archive, even as more and more materials from it are made available to more and more people online.