OK, this is really cheap fun, but I can’t resist. In the course of an obituary for Paul Sweezy, 93, Marxist Publisher and Economist, the NY Times (in the person of Louis Uchitelle, supported by the crack Times crew of copy editors, printers, and proofreaders) perpetrated the following sentence: “What saved the United States from that fate in the 1960’s, the authors wrote, were temporary phenomenon: military spending, robust consumerism and the growing demand for autos because of rapidly expanding suburbs and the new Interstate highway system.” I know it’s tough figuring out the plural of Greek loan words, but come on, guys, you can do better than that.


  1. Note, though, that Laura Miller made the same mistake in the article on Nüshu that you linked to:

    It is common for people in literate societies to consider language and writing as one, as Cody does, but these are entirely different phenomenon

  2. I guess they got confused. says that there are two plurals to choose from:
    Usage Note: Phenomenon is the only singular form of this noun; phenomena is the usual plural. Phenomenons may also be used as the plural in nonscientific writing when the meaning is “extraordinary things, occurrences, or persons”: They were phenomenons in the history of music.
    Faced with two choices, they chose to take neither.

  3. three questions:
    What was the original $64,000 question?
    Who asked the original $64,000 question?
    Did they get value for money?

  4. Looks like a common editing bobble to me. I bet someone changed “was a temporary phenomenon” to “were …” and missed changing the “phenomena” because of an interruption or gas or something.

  5. P: There’s a word that fascinates me: a bobble. It may be a U.S./British difference, or maybe not. I know what a bobble cap is – a woolly cap with a bobble (pompom) on top. But that must be a different bobble.

  6. In Australia, a bobble hat without a bobble is a beanie. Is that limited to Australia?

  7. No, I’ve heard beanie in the UK.

  8. Bobble struck me too. Fabrics can be bobbled – have those balls of fuzz rubbed up on the surface as a result of friction. Bobbling. But an editing bobble?

  9. “In Australia, a bobble hat without a bobble is a beanie. Is that limited to Australia?”
    I’ve lived in Australia all my life and never heard of a bobble hat before today. I’ve always referred to the bobble as a pompom. And now it’s bugging me that I can’t think of whether I’ve ever called a bobble hat anything other than a pompom hat.
    I just checked with a friend and, although she’d heard of a bobble hat, she didn’t know what one was. She’d always referred to the hat in question as a pompom hat too.
    A beanie, however, is definitely a bobble-less pompom hat.

  10. Sorry: to clarify, I used ‘bobble hat’ in the post above because I grew up in England and that’s what we called it way back when. I don’t remember hearing ‘beanie’ while I was there (I think we just called them woolly hats). Could that be a recent import? (I left in the mid-80s.)

  11. Hey had you noticed, the standard plural of ‘millenium’ is now ‘milleniums’? I mean I saw ‘millenia’ just about as frequently as the other construction for a long time, but this year I haven’t seen it at all. Has anyone else noticed this shift?

  12. I hadn’t, but I’ll keep an eye peeled now that you’ve brought it to my attention.
    And I love the way this thread mutated into a discussion of bobble hats. For one thing, it taught me a new hat-related term, which is always a good thing.

  13. Hat, you probably know, is şapka in Turkish, and imported prostitute is Natasha. There may be other Russian importations I don’t know yet, which may also be tangentially relevent to one or another language hat post.

  14. Re: bobble
    In this case, I believe the bobble is an action meaning to fumble. For example: the goalie bobbled the puck. Nothing to do with hats…

  15. I noticed the spelling “millenium” for “millennium” in my own writing recently. My spell-checker caught it. “Millenium” with one n still looks correct to me for some reason…

  16. That’s probably because it’s so common. The M-W Dict. of Eng. Usage says “This [one-n] spelling has long been well attested in our files and still claims nearly 10% of the occurrences of the word. But no dictionary or spelling book that we are aware of recognizes millenium. You had better spell it with as many n‘s as l‘s.”

  17. Re bobble – it sounds older, but according to all the sources I’ve seen, it’s 20th C. It must be fairly recent, because my ancient SOED doesn’t list it. And the word beanie is just gaining ground in the UK, so you wouldn’t have heard it in the 1980s here. Fashion-wise, beanies are in, bobble-hats are – well, old hat.

  18. Douglas Davidson says

    The one-n spelling of millennium may be common, but I can’t help laughing whenever I see it. After all, there’s a reason why you never see people make the same mistake with the root word “annus”, and I would say the same applies to millennium, a thousand times over.

  19. D’oh!

  20. Phenomenon seems to be a difficult word. I was listening to a radio program once while a somewhat sensitive interviewer interrupted a scientist describing her experiments to ask accusingly, “why do you call it a ‘phenomenon’?” If the scientist even noticed that the interviewer believed phenomenon to have pejorative connotations, she didn’t show it. She replied, “because it’s something that occurs,” and went on with her description.
    In Canada a knitted hat with a pom-pom on top is a “toque” (or “tuque”).

  21. Phenomenon is a pejorative? That’s a new one to me.
    And I always thought a beanie was a child’s skullcap, such as the famous propellered ones from the 50s. Was I mistaken?

  22. I would have guessed “bobble” comes from baseball, which would account for its lack of currency overseas. I would guess it describes a fielder almost-catching a ball, what you’d call a fumble in American football. The comical up-and-down motion the hapless fielder makes in missing and chasing the ball might have led to applying “bobble” to “bobblehead” dolls, the ones with their wobbly heads on springs.

  23. The baseball origin was my guess as well. And Justin, I too think of the propellor type.

  24. Goofing on phenomena(on) is like shooting fishes in a barrel. Thanks for your introduction to so many wordly worlds.

  25. Two phenomena at work here:

    1. Latinate plurals are gradually being replaced by regular -s or -es plurals. For example, we now have octopuses (usually) instead of octopi, referendums (sometimes) instead of referenda, and phenomenons (occasionally) instead of phenomenona.
    2. Many people attempt to appear more intelligent than they are, and one of the ways they do it is by rejecting the -s/-es plurals and using the Latinate ones. But they stuff it up by using the Latinate plural even when they mean the singular.

    So my guess is that a copy editor at the NYT, used to giving the smackdown to these accidental plurals, did so reflexively in this case when they shouldn’t have.

  26. mpt “we now have octopuses (usually) instead of octopi”
    Actually, “octopi” is not really a proper pluralization of octopus, since the word is not Latin but Latinized Greek. If you want to be pedantic, it should be pluralized as “octopodes.”

  27. I’m afraid jpf is right. “Octopi” is a common pitfall.

  28. But it’s not entirely illegitimate, in my usually pedantic opinion. See my post at
    Mess ups on Latinate plurals are indeed quite common, but it’s amazing how screwed up people get about phenomenon/phenomena, probably because the -on/-a ending doesn’t show up much in english.

  29. I’ll be damned. But I can’t get the link to work in “Furthermore, it turns out that even in Greek it was sometimes treated as second declension”; all I get is a blank page. What document(s) are you referring to?

  30. I also think P is right in saying “bobble” probably came from baseball. By using the word puck, I guess I was revealing where I live, eh.

  31. All the links in that document originally went to the appropriate entries in Perseus. I am not sure why they no longer work.

  32. Can we call an Australian an “antipus”?

  33. Justin: So what authors used it as 2nd declension?

  34. Mr. Osner: Heh! I like it!
    LH: Oh, OK, well according to the online LSJ it’s chiefly poetic:

    in Poets freq. declined as if from poulupos , gen. poulupou Thgn. 215 , Ar.Fr.191: pl., gen. poulupôn Amips.6 ; acc. poulupous Ar.Fr. 189 : Dor. pl. nom. pôlupoi Epich.61; acc. pôlupous Id.124 : also nom. sg. pôlupos Hp.Aff.5 (v.l.)

    (It also notes a polups -os byform.)
    I doubt it was actually limited to poetry in the spoken language, though, since it made it’s way into Latin.

  35. That’s very interesting indeed. It does sound like your average Greek-in-the-street might not have connected polypous (and by extension oktapous) very closely with pous, podos and might have used oktapoi as a plural (and been slapped down by the Safires of the day). I’ll have to revise my whole pattern of thinking about this.
    *grabs head, twists, producing audible popping noise*

  36. Well, I haven’t put in the research yet, but I think this kind of error was not uncommon for -pous words. As I mentioned in the post I linked to, it is frequent for the name Oedipus.

  37. Speaking of classical plurals; what’s the historically correct way to refer to more than one catoblepas?

  38. Well now, that’s a good question. My guess would be catoblepae, but I’m no Latinist. Justin?

  39. Aha, catoblepae! I think you’re right; at least, there’s a Latin wordlist here with [CATOBLEPAS, CATOBLEPAE].

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