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19th century engraving of a platypus

Ask a lexicographer: part 4

Every now and again, we like to share a few of the very interesting questions sent to us by users of Oxford Dictionaries. Read how our lexicographers tackle questions about British and American English usage and the written treatment of foreign words.

What is the plural of platypus? Is it platypodes?

Platypodes is one possibility when talking about more than one platypus, although it is rare. It is formed after the Hellenistic Greek πλατύποδες, plural of πλατύπους meaning ‘flat-footed’. A similar phenomenon is seen in the formation of the plural of another creature, octopus, where octopodes (reflecting the plural in the Greek) is an option, although this too is rare.

Much more common are the forms platypuses (occasionally spelled platypusses) or platypi. The latter is formed by analogy with Latin nouns of the second declension ending in –us (when in fact the Latin word is a noun of the third declension). For this reason, it is sometimes seen as incorrect in standard English.

Visit our Plurals of nouns page for more guidance on forming plurals for English words of foreign origin.

Is it acceptable to say ‘I am good’ in place of ‘I am well’?

Many people object to the answer ‘I am good’ when the question being asked is ‘How are you?’ but there is no grammatical reason for this objection. Perhaps people see the answer as being an indication of the state of the respondent’s moral character? Or it may be that for some non-Americans it is seen as an Americanism. While it is true that this usage is originally found in American usage, it has been used across the Atlantic since at least the 1920s. 

Should French words like tragedienne, comedienne, tête-à-tête, coup de théâtre, and raison d’être be written in italics?

Words which have been borrowed into English from other languages are often marked in some way when they are first used, sometimes by being in quotation marks, having a gloss immediately afterwards, or being italicized. All of these will mark the word as being unusual. But as a word becomes absorbed into the language, they tend to become more commonplace and so lose these markers. Some will even lose their accents.

The Oxford Dictionaries headword for comedienne is spelt without the acute accent over the first e, yet raison d’être still retains the circumflex over the first e. In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for this, a variant form without the circumflex is also given:

raison d'etre

Which is correct: ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’?

Both ‘spelled’ and ‘spelt’ are acceptable forms of the past participle of spell.   ‘Spelt’ is found more commonly in British English. There are a number of verbs of this type (burn, dream, kneel, lean, leap, spell, spill, spoil, etc.), where the past participle can have alternative spellings. 

Visit our Verbs page to brush up on tenses and using participles.

Is ‘conversate’ a word?

Conversate does not yet have an entry in either the OED or Oxforddictionaries.com, but this does not mean that it isn’t a word. The Oxford English Corpus has 29 examples of its use, which is something of a drop in the ocean, granted, but it still exists:

conversate

It seems to have been formed on the analogy of it being a corresponding verb for the noun conversation, but in standard English, the usual verb is ‘to converse’.  The OED has an entry for conversation (verb), defined as ‘To converse, talk, engage in conversation’.

 

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