I was having the great "octopuses vs. octopi" debate with a scientist friend the other day, and decided to check the lexicon.

The only entry I could find relates the word to measurement, either of length or area, and the only available instance was Plato:

Socrates Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but merely asking him each time? And now he supposes that he knows about the line required to make a figure of eight square feet; or do you not think he does?
Source: Plato, Meno 82e

The octopus was definitely known to the Greeks, as these vases demonstrate.

I seem to recall that πολύπους was the word used for the animal, and this entry mentions a usage meaning "octopus", although it does not seem to be exclusive to cuttlefish.

Q: Is it correct that there was no exclusive word for octopus, or cuttlefish in general, in Ancient Greek? Does the same hold for Latin?

  • 1
    The LSJ entry for ὀκτώπους does point to another variant ὀκτάπους, one of whose meanings is given as "octopus": perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 0:19
  • relevant elu answer & comments at english.stackexchange.com/a/138236/77227
    – Asteroides
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 0:43
  • 1
    @sumelic. With the false claim that "the word octopus was coined by Linnaeus (the biologist) in the 18th century", and other factual errors.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:26
  • @TKR. Yes, with ὀκτα- as the regular compositional stem of ὀκτω.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:30
  • @fdb: Why don't you post an answer here with the Alexander Trallianus example?
    – Asteroides
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 9:10

2 Answers 2


As can be seen from LSJ, its first recorded use as a noun goes to the sixth century AD only:

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Incidentally, in the Latin translation we have polypi, and in the Index of the 1886 German edition of Therapeutica, Theodor Puschmann puts a question mark next to it, so it is not quite that certain, if I read it correctly:

enter image description here

  • Incidentally, what software is that you're using? It doesn't look like any site I know.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 3:49
  • @Cerberus TLG stephanus.tlg.uci.edu
    – Alex B.
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 13:04

In ancient Greek, there's this exact word for octopus: ὀκτάπους < ὀκτώ + πούς (=eight + leg), which literally means something with eight legs. I think that's specific enough. Πολύπους < πολύ + πούς (=many + leg) was used as well, although not as specific as ὀκτάπους and actually meaning something with many legs. As for Latin, the word that was used to describe octopus was POLYPUS, which comes from the ancient Greek πολύπους and means something with many legs.

  • 1
    I've been browsing the Loeb library and it seems that πολύπους is the most common way to refer to what we now call octopus.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 17:57

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