928: Mimic Octopus

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Mimic Octopus
Even if the dictionaries are starting to give in, I refuse to accept 'octopi' as a word mainly because--I'm not making this up--there's a really satisfying climactic scene in the Orson Scott Card horror novel 'Lost Boys' which hinges on it being an incorrect pluralization.
Title text: Even if the dictionaries are starting to give in, I refuse to accept 'octopi' as a word mainly because--I'm not making this up--there's a really satisfying climactic scene in the Orson Scott Card horror novel 'Lost Boys' which hinges on it being an incorrect pluralization.


This comic is a parody of fish and sea-life identification charts, referencing the mimic octopus which, as the name implies, is able to mimic other animals, so all animals and objects found in the sea could actually just be such an animal (or animals).

The identification chart for South East Asian sea life shows 13 creatures mimicked including eight individual fish (two of which are not yet recognized) and other objects and animals. In order, top-to-bottom, left-to-right: A Moorish idol, unknown, a rockfish, a clownfish, unknown, a lionfish, a shark, a sea lily, an angler fish, an anchor, a submarine, a scuba diver and school of 11 fish. Finally there is an octopus, but rather than being the mimic octopus in its natural form it's actually two of them each (presumably) mimicking part of an octopus.

The Orson Scott Card novel that the title text refers to is Lost Boys: "A withdrawn eight-year-old in a troubled family invents imaginary friends who bear the names of missing children" (Publisher's Weekly). The part of the story that Randall is referring to (Chapter 7, Crickets) involves a situation where the protagonist, Stevie, is given a C grade for an otherwise impeccable diorama featuring underwater animals involving clay sculptures (when only a poster would have sufficed) and a well-written presentation supposedly because the other children had destroyed the diorama before the end of the day. To make matters worse, his teacher, Ms. Jones, had made fun of his project and given the ribbon for first prize to someone else.

On inquiring about the grading, his father, Step, found out that the principal, Dr. Mariner, had already made the decision to hand Stevie the blue ribbon for first prize as she had reviewed the project before it had been destroyed, but Ms. Jones had secretly overruled her behind her back by announcing that another child (JJ) would receive the ribbon. So, the next day he met up with Ms Jones after school to have a word on the grading of his project. Needless to say, they ended up arguing about minor issues, with Mrs. Jones justifying the reason for her decision on, among other things, the definition of a 'depiction', whether or not the amount of content was defined by the word count or the number of pages and of the importance of putting the report in a plastic cover. The argument finally comes to a head when Step points out that there was only one red mark on the project report, and that concerned an 'incorrect' pluralization of the word 'octopus'

“But Mrs. Jones, surely you know that the plural of “octopus” is either ‘octopus’, with nothing added, or ‘octopuses’.”
“I think not,” said Mrs. Jones.
“Think again, Mrs. Jones.”
She must have realized that she was not on firm ground here. “Perhaps ‘octopuses’ is an alternate plural, but I’m sure that ‘octopi’ is the preferred.”
“No, Mrs. Jones. If you had looked it up, you would have discovered that ‘octopi’ is not the preferred spelling. It is not a spelling at all. The word does not exist, except in the mouths of those who are pretending to be educated but in fact are not. This is because the ‘us’ ending of ‘octopus’ is not a Latin nominative singular ending, which would form its plural by changing to the letter ‘i’. Instead, the syllable ‘pus’ in ‘octopus’ is the Greek word for ‘foot.’ And it forms its plural the Greek way. Therefore ‘octopoda’, not ‘octopi’. Never ‘octopi’.”
“Well, then, octopoda. Your son’s paper said octopuses.”
“I know,” said Step. “When he asked me the correct plural, I told him octopoda. But then he was still uncertain, because my son doesn’t think he knows something until he knows it, and so he looked it up. And to my surprise, octopoda is only used when referring to more than one species of octopus, rather than when referring to more than one actual octopus. What Stevie put in his paper is in fact the preferred dictionary usage. Which you would have known, too, if you had looked it up.”

After proving his case that his son did indeed deserve an A grade, he then threatened to bring the matter to the attention of the principal. He then warned Mrs. Jones that while he wanted the grade to remain unchanged, he wanted her to inform the class that the ribbon would be awarded to Stevie, before revealing that he had been recording the conversation all along. And, after this, after Mrs. Jones came crying for forgiveness before leaving, Step realized how vulnerable she was and how she was channeling her frustration at one particular student in each class to find some relief from that.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 'octopi', 'octopuses', and 'octopodes' are all correct plural versions of "octopus." However, "octopi" is etymologically incorrect as "octopus" is of Greek origin, rather than Latin. Following the Greek, the correct plural is 'octopodes'. Supposedly, Randall would very much like the word 'octopi' to remain unrecognized by major dictionaries as otherwise it would lessen the magnitude of the climactic conclusion of this argument by rendering Step's mockery of Ms. Jones' perceived intellectual superiority factually invalid. This also offers another reason why the octopus in the chart is named two mimic octopuses, so Randall can use the correct pluralization of the word in the comic. This is an example of a comic where the title text seems more important to Randall than the actual comic.

It should be noted that, at least according to Etymology Dictionary, "octopi" is wrong for exactly the reasons that Step lists and first appears over 60 years later.


[Captions above the panel:]
Southeast Asian Sea Life
Identification Chart
[The chart consist of 14 black silhouettes which includes eight individual fish and several other object/animals. From top left: A Moorish idol, unknown fish, a rockfish, a clownfish, unknown fish, a lionfish, a shark, a sea lily, an w|angler fish, an anchor with chain, a submarine, a scuba diver, a school of seven large and four small fish, and and at the bottom right a silhouette of an octopus displaying eight arms and a tilted head with large white eyes. All 14 are labeled the same except the octopus:]
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Two Mimic Octopuses

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How does the mimic octopus manage to mimic multiple fish? Does it split it's own body up or something? Davidy22[talk] 13:30, 8 January 2013 (UTC)

"When under attack, some octopuses can perform arm autotomy, in a similar manner to the way skinks and other lizards detach their tails. The crawling arm serves as a distraction to would-be predators. Such severed arms remain sensitive to stimuli and move away from unpleasant sensations.[23]"[1] (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Fine, but in the SCUBA diver depiction, would it really need to rip parts out of itself to mimic bubbles? I don't think that that is quite necessary. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
It could also hypothetically mimic bubbles by *actually blowing bubbles*. (No word on how it does this.) 02:36, 2 January 2016 (UTC)Anon
Simple: This is a 2D cut-out of the octopus mimicking the fishes or the scuba in 3D. It assumes a very complex figure, so that in the cut-out we only see the 2D pictures above. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
i always thought it was just a point of humour in the absurdity that a single octopus could mimic a group of fish -- just the same as it is for a rather small creature to mimic a full-size submarine Eurydice (talk) 17:37, 31 December 2021 (UTC)

For the record, octopus is from the Greek ὀκτάπους, a compound of ὀκτά (eight) and πούς (foot); πούς is a third declension masculine noun, whose plural is πόδες. Therefore, the etymologically correct plural of octopus should be octopodes, not (as Orson Scott Card suggests) octopoda, since πούς is not a neuter.

Actually, it would be "octopuses", as it showed up after the regularization of English plurals to a final -s. As the video in the explanation explains, someone in the Victorian Grammarian Era "realized" it was "Latin" and pluralized it as such. This caught on and still haunts us to this day. "Octopdes" was coined around the same time by a more observant someone, who realized it was actually Greek. Personally, I avoid the whole trichotomy by saying "octopods". Unrelated etymologically, but has the same meaning and is unequivocally regular. Anonymous 08:08, 5 December 2013 (UTC)

Has anyone checked to see if the title text is true? Whether it is or not, this should be added to the description. 11:53, 16 October 2015 (UTC)

What exactly is the pun here? 00:53, 13 July 2016 (UTC)

I don't know, either!?! "Too many octopuses"??? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I had a very different impression of this comic when I first read it. I had never heard of a mimic octopus, and I assumed that the comic was making fun of calling a food dish "octopus" when it really wasn't. As in, a restaurant might feed you whatever they caught in a net and call it octopus, no matter how absurd it was. And if they ever did catch an octopus, they split it in two. Very cynical, but not nearly as cool. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I believe the third fish silhouette is actually a grouper, not a tuna. Sorry, Charlie.-- 03:26, 18 February 2017 (UTC)

I am not getting the "pun" of two mimic octopuses. Could anyone elaborate a little bit more? I never thought it as a pun, but rather implying that a mimic octopus, or any creature mirroring what it see, can only reveal its natural form by mimicking other mimic octopus. Though I think it makes sense, this is a bit different from other topics in xkcd, so I doubt it. 12:37, 22 August 2017 (UTC)

I agree with the above comment. Where's the "pun"? "Two Mimic Octopuses" doesn't sound like any other phrase. Maybe, at a stretch, "too many octopuses"? Moreover I don't think "… which is the pun of this comic" makes sense in any way. Comics don't all have puns, and comics with puns aren't limited to one. Perhaps it's a typo for "the point of this comic" or something? I'm going to remove that clause in 24 hours unless someone comes up with a convincing justification. AmbroseChapel (talk) 02:05, 13 September 2017 (UTC)

I am surprised that nobody mentioned the very similar mock identification charts such as this one or that one. Given the silhoutetted style of Randall's drawing, I'm pretty sure he had one or both in mind. 15:36, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

The (visual) pun is that the one image out of all of them that actually looks like it could be an octopus, is actually not a (single) octopus. See the identification charts in the comment above for similar concept. 20:38, 11 October 2019 (UTC)

Wait, they’re all mimic octopuses?

    Always has been.

Is it possible that the second “unknown” figure is a coral grouper? (Link to image examples:(https://reefguide.org/indopac/pixhtml/coralgrouper9.html) It resembles an outline of some smaller examples. (talk) 04:43, 12 January 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)