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Supernova, image of Crab nebulaIn 1604, 411 years ago today, Kepler, former assistant to Tycho Brahe whose own supernova, SN 1572, was discovered in, well, 1572, discovered his supernova (SN 1604) in the foot of Ophiuchus, incidentally the 13th of the 12 astronomical constellations...

Which raises the question: if we add Kepler’s supernova to the up-dated name of Brahe’s stella nova, or new star, do we get two supernovae, supernovas or even supernova?

There is an obscure bunch of people “we” call “purists”. Who are they? Well, they don’t actually exist outside the argument from authority when people say that “purists prefer the term…” or “if you’re a purist, then…” But what sort of purist would one call upon to decide the plural of “learnèd” terms? Well, for Latin-derived terms, a Latinist, obviously. So one syllabus, two syllabi (oh dear, no, no…); one ignoramus (Latin verb for “we do not know” and loads of ignorami; one octopus and?... and octopus doesn’t come from the Latin but the Greek so the plural “should” be “octopodes”. And why do we go to see an opera, which is the plural of opus “work of art”? And do your kids get really excited when you tell them “we’re going to see two circi today”?

Purism, schmurism, it’s just a plain old form of hypercorrection where we’re not really sure and, to prevent being accused of philistinism, throw in a Latin-sounding term to make us seem smart. Well, it might work on the less educated, but probably has the opposite effect on the better.

So stick to English, almost every single word we have comes from “somewhere else”. Anyone know how to pluralize Hindi पैजामा, pyjama? Or Arabic قَهْوَة ‎(qahwa, “coffee, brew”)? Or Yakut мамонт (mammoth)?

I don’t have a clue and am perfectly happy with pyjamas, coffees and mammoths, although not necessarily all in bed at the same time. So, it’s supernovas, right?!

(For an interesting article from which some of this was plagiarized [read the bit about syllabuses], see Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum’s Language Log.)

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Guest Saturday, 07 December 2019
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