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03/14/2013

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Mark Spahn

The medievalist you quote thinks that the plural of _syllabus_ is _syllabi_. It is not. The Latin word _syllabus_ is a fourth-declension noun, and its plural is not _syllabi_ (as it would be if _syllabus_ were a second-declension noun), but _syllabus_, with an elongated _u_.
Quiz question: What is the plural of _octopus_? Hint: This word comes from Greek, not Latin.

Mike

Actually, no, that's what I like to think of as a "learned-folk etymology," and it wouldn't surprise me if syllabus is the most successful typo in world history. In fact, the word _syllabus_ didn't exist in Latin at all until it was accidentally created between the 1380s and the 1470s as a misprint of the Greek word _sittybas_ "parchment labels" in Cicero's letters to Atticus. (There's often added the claim Augustine used the word too, but what he used was a form of _syllaba_ "syllable.") There's certainly no warrant in the historical record for saying it's a fourth-declension noun, for the forms in Cicero are the expected Greek forms for first declension and the form in Augustine (syllabis) would be first or second declension. The claim it's fourth declension is rather an assumption by later scholars based on several subsequent layers of surmise without looking closely at the actual historical record.

For an entertaining view of this, see these two posts by a classicist:

http://epectasis.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/curious-and-quibbling-history-of.html

http://epectasis.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/curious-and-quibbling-history-of_23.html

As for octopus, the plural is, of course, octopuses, as it is a fine long-since-nativized word in English. If you refer to technical use in biology, the plural is octopodes. Octopi is, of course, an excrescence of posturing pseudo-intellectuals who think Latin has only two declensions, rather akin to the supposedly educated Latin American studies drudges who abuse Catalan and Portuguese names into Castilian pronunciations.

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