All posts by Gordon Schoenfeld

Plural of the word ‘octopus’

What’s the plural form of the word ‘octopus?’ Many would respond with “Ah, I know! It’s not octopuses… it’s octopi, right?!”

Not really, no.

Octopus is formed from the Greek words ὀκτώ ‘okto’ eight and πούς ‘pous’ foot. In accordance with Greek rules, it should be pluralized as octopodes.

Some people assume incorrectly that it is a Latin word (like stimulus or cactus) and should therefore take the Latin 2nd declension plural octopi (analogous to stimuli and cacti). Since this is based off a bad assumption, most prescriptive dictionaries do not accept ‘octopi’ as a valid form.

According to English rules, it should pluralize to octopuses, which is equally acceptable as octopodes according to prescriptivists. Octopuses is more common than octopodes in actual English usage.

You can verify the above this using the Online Etymology Dictionary (or any reputable source, for that matter).

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How kanji work

Japanese has 3 different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana each have a manageable 46 letters. And how many kanji (characters) are there in all? Thousands upon thousands. But don’t worry: you only need to know 2,136 of them to read a newspaper.

2,136?! How can somebody possibly learn that many symbols?! It’s difficult, but not as bad as it sounds. Let me break it down by explaining where they came from and how they work.

What are kanji?

Kanji are a set of ideographs (characters representing ideas as opposed to sounds), originally from China. In China, they are called hànzì. The best explanation of ideographs I can give is the one I gave in my article about Japanese writing:

A familiar analogy is Arabic numerals in English: the character “1” has a particular meaning associated with it, rather than a pronunciation. Derivatives of it, like “1st” and “13” sound nothing like “one”, but all share a meaning related to one-ness. Because there are a huge number of ideas out there – many more than there are sounds in a language – there are countless characters.

So there is one kanji for “person” and another for “hand” and another for “moon” (which also means “month”), and so forth.

Yeah but, how did they come up with each one?

Ok, let’s talk composition. Kanji started off as drawings of objects, sort of like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Here are some of the more straightforward examples and how they evolved.

Kanji origins chart
Meanings (top to bottom): mountain, fire, tree, gold, ground, gate.

These basic pictures serve as the building blocks, or “radicals” as we say, of modern kanji. Kanji can be decomposed into combinations of radicals just as all English words can be decomposed into their letters.

Let’s examine a few, using 木 tree as our starting point, to see how this works.

  • Put two 木 trees together to get 林 woods.
  • Put three 木 trees together to get 森 forest.
  • To represent root or base, we add a line near the bottom of 木 tree: 本.
  • Imagine the sun (日) rising behind a tree (木). The result is 東, which means east.
  • Take 人 person, and smush it a little (for graphical reasons), then put it next to 木 tree. This makes 休, the kanji that means to rest.
  • If we put 田 field and 木 tree together, we get the kanji 果 fruit. Think: orchard.

However, only a small number of kanji are simple pictures or a logical combination of them (like the bullet points above). A few are basic abstractions, such 上 up and 下 down.

The vast majority of kanji have multiple parts, where the first piece gives the category of the meaning and the rest indicates the pronunciation. An example is 時 time ‘shi’. It is composed of 日 sun/day + 寺 temple ‘ji’. 時 takes its meaning category from the first (since day is related to time) and its sound from the second (since ‘ji’ sounds like ‘shi’).

Putting kanji together

Is every concept captured by a single character? No. The written language would literally be impossible to use if “Orion” had its own character, and so did “schizophrenia,” and so did “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

In reality, most words in Japanese are a formed by a combination of multiple kanji. 休 rest + 日 day/sun = 休日 holiday. 日 day/sun + 本 root/base = 日本 Land of the Rising Sun (that is: Japan). 先 previous + 生 born = 先生 elder (‘sensei’). 自 self + 動 moving + 車 vehicle = 自動車 automobile. These examples go on and on, and as a matter of fact build the vocabulary for an entire language.

New concepts usually have their terms adopted from elsewhere and spelled out phonetically in the katakana syllabary (e.g. インターネット internet (‘intānetto’)) in lieu of kanji. But in some instances – especially a few centuries ago – existing kanji were combined to form a new word (e.g. 共 mutual + 産 output + 主 main + 義 ideal = 共産主義 communism). In other cases, kanji were invented outright; this was done for many types of fish native to Japan.

Japanese-specific considerations

Pretty much everything above, excepting the previous paragraph, holds true for Chinese as well, who continue using essentially the same character system. It is also true for Korean in the past, who are weaning off of kanji (or ‘hanja’ as they are called there). Vietnam has fully phased out their use of Chinese characters.

But Japanese – one of only two languages still actively using these characters – has quite a few parculiarities stemming from how it assimilated kanji into its own vocabulary. To review:

Here’s an example. The native Japanese word for water is mizu while in Chinese it is shuǐ. The Chinese write water as 水 and read it shuǐ. So what the Japanese began to do is write 水 to mean water, while pronouncing it as the word they’d always used for water: mizu. …The Japanese also decided to go ahead and start adopting Chinese pronunciations of certain words and roots into their own language… what they began to do is give [水] a second, Chinese-derived pronunciation: sui.

So nearly all kanji have both a Chinese-derived pronunciation and a Japanese native pronunciation. We call these the Chinese-derived reading 音読み ‘on-yomi’ and the Japanese native readings 訓読み ‘kun-yomi.’ It can sometimes be difficult remembering both sets, and knowing when to use which, but most individual words generally are entirely ‘on-yomi’ or entirely ‘kun-yomi.’


WARNING: Do not this section if you’re a learner of Japanese and are easily demotivated.

I mentioned above that most characters have multiple readings. A strong majority have about two (one ‘on-yomi’ and one ‘kun-yomi’), but that number can spiral upwards in the cases of very basic concepts.

A crazy example of high numbers of readings are 生’s 13 readings (sei, shō, i-, u-, uma-, umare, o-, ha-, ki-, nama, na-, mu-, -u). And that number doesn’t even include all the readings that it can take in proper names.

Kanji can also be very complex visually. There are some characters which are composed of one kanji multiple times (e.g. 3 鹿 deer together make 麤 coarse [obscure])… but in my mind it’s kind of cheating. There are some legitimate good ones to be found in the animal kingdom: 麒麟 giraffe, 鷹 eagle, 龜 turtle [old-fashioned version], 龍 dragon [old-fashioned version], and 鳳凰 phoenix. Other fan favorites include 薔薇 rose, 鬱 depression, and 躊躇 hesitation.

Seems too hard. What’s the point?

Yeah, kanji are difficult to learn and to write. Japanese already has two other fully-accepted writing systems. So why keep kanji at all? Japan could emulate Korea and mostly eliminate them, or copy the Vietnamese and abandon them entirely. What’s holding the Japanese back from abolishing kanji?

The justifications probably won’t satisfy you unless you’re already a kanji guru, but apparently they’re good enough for Japan.

The first is clarity. The Japanese language has a relatively poor sound inventory, so there are tons of homophones. Distinctions made in speech (through intonation or supplemental explanation) would be lost in writing. But kanji make it crystal clear which definition you intend. Additionally, since they each carry specific meanings, everyday people can look at difficult jargon and make some sense of it.

Kanji are also significantly more compact than the alternatives. 東京 Tokyo is two characters, but it would take five hiragana letters to spell out the same word: とうきょう. And compare the 11-kanji 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to its 22-hiragana counterpart: ちょうせんみんしゅしゅぎじんみんきょうわこく. And just to compare this with the lack of compactness that our 26-letter alphabet offers, take a look at these comparisons:

市制 municipal organization
正直 straightforwardness
冷蔵庫 refrigerator
麻酔医 anesthesiologist
国際化 internationalization

Lastly, kanji have a certain beauty that would be lost if they were to disappear. The logic and order to them expands the mind, the rote memorization required to learn them commands discipline, and their visual forms are art.

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About daylight saving time

Daylight saving time is a common practice in large swaths of the Western world. I’ve heard many misunderstandings about it, so I thought I’d try to set some straight.


In North America, we call this concept daylight saving time, often rendered as daylight savings time. In most other English-speaking countries, this is called summer time.

As indicated by the non-North American name, DST refers specifically to the summer portion of the year; the winter portion of the year is merely standard time.

What’s the point of DST?

Originally, daylight saving time/summer time was devised to give us more sunlight on summer evenings.

Most of the purposes of DST are obsolete now, so many advocate for getting rid of it altogether.

Am I using EST?

If it’s summer, and you live on the East Coast of the US, you are not using EST. EST stands for “Eastern Standard Time,” which is a term specifically to distinguish it from its summertime equivalent: “Eastern Daylight Time” (EDT). So it is incorrect to say something like “11am EST on August 14th”… unless you actually mean noon in New York time on that day. If you want a term that you can use safely year-round, just use “Eastern Time” (ET).

The nomenclature is equivalent in the other US time zones: Los Angeles’ PST (Pacific Standard Time) switches to PDT in the summer, just as Denver’s MST does to MDT, and Chicago’s CST to CDT. And the terms PT, MT, and CT are acceptable regardless of daylight saving time status.

In Britain, people make the similar mistake of saying GMT (Greenwich Mean Time, their equivalent of EST) year-round. During summer, Britain does not use GMT at all; they use British Summer Time (BST).

To hit the point home, here are the current times in four different timezones (might not work on mobile devices):

Eastern Standard Time
Eastern Daylight Time
Greenwich Mean Time
British Summer Time


DST observance map of the world
Blue: observes DST. Orange: formerly observed DST. Red: never observed DST.

Some countries use DST/summer time, and others don’t. Some have regions that do and regions that don’t (N.B. Arizona and Hawaii, 3 states in Australia, etc.). Some countries or regions used to use daylight saving time but no longer do. Others have changed the dates or times of switching the clocks.

One particularly confusing element is when coordinating between the northern hemispheres. So around March, when DST-observing countries set their clocks forward for summer time, DST-observing countries in the southern hemisphere are turning their clocks backward as their summer time is ending.

Example: São Paulo, Brazil uses GMT -3 hours as its standard time zone. New York City uses GMT -5 hours as its standard time zone. March through October is summer time in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere, so NYC uses Eastern Daylight Time, which is GMT -4 hours (while São Paulo is on standard time: GMT -3 hours). So NYC is 1 hour behind São Paulo. But November through February is winter in NYC and summer in São Paulo – so NYC is in Eastern Standard Time (GMT-5) while São Paulo is in daylight time (GMT-2), making them 3 hours apart.

What’s it look like during the overlap periods between the clock changes? A mess.

Things that DST doesn’t do

You may have grievances about daylight saving time, but there are some things that you just can’t blame on it, like recent droughts or your crops dying.

Let’s share what we learned about the magic of daylight savings time!