My post this morning suggested that the real reason to pay attention to the Obama Bowgate issue is not whether protocol was breached or anti-royalist sentiments have been compromised, but rather that it reveals a degree of administrative and managerial incompetence within the upper levels of the executive branch of government, betraying the notion that Obama and his minions can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” to use a phrase that was popular about a year ago during the Transition of Administrations from Bush to Obama.  I pointed out that the scenario pointed to a number of conundra which are common to all large organizations.

Wait a minute.  “Conundra“?  What the hell does “conundra” mean?

I intended to use the plural form of “conundrum,” meaning a difficult and confusing problem.  There are several candidates for the proper plural form of this word, upon which persnickety grammarians are unable to consense:

  • Conundrums
  • Conundra
  • Conundrae
  • Puzzles

“Puzzles” would probably be the simplest word to use, but I’m a lawyer so of course that’s not the one I chose.

In the link above, the plural form of “octupus” and “hippopotamus” are also discussed; “octopi” and “hippopotami” are certainly fun to say. “Genius” is another of this breed; the right plural form would appear to be “genii.” So what if you go from the plural form of “twins” — “gemini” — back to the singular? Was Pollux the “geminus” of Castor? At the track meet, you unambiguously have a stack of “javelins,” but what about that set of more than one “discus”? Are they “discusses”? Does that make talking about them “discussing”?*

It also brings to the fore questions of how to pluralize other Latinate and Greciate verbiage.  “Stadium,” “memorandum,” and “theorem” are all in this category — we can refer to a number of “stadiums” but it seems the proper word would be “stadia,” for the same reason that we refer to “memoranda” instead of “memorandums” — but that doesn’t explain how the shortened form of the word, “memo,” is universally pluralized as “memos” instead of “memae.” 

And there are “-f” and “-v” endings, as well, which appear to be relics of old German rather than Greek or Latin.  “Knife” to “Knives.”  “Wolf” to “Wolves.”  This, at least, is the result of phoneticization.  But what to make of “deer” and “fish”?

On top of it all, there’s national soccer/football teams (similar to the pretentious nickname of Stanford University’s sports teams).  When you refer to the national team of, say, Mexico, the word “Mexico” refers, in the plural form, to the team as a whole.  Reading a sports column that says “Mexico’s players lack endurance” makes sense to me, but something like “Mexico will have to confront their lack of endurance” does not.

* Apologies to Eminem.  I totally stole his joke there.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.