Word Matters Podcast

Nashe's 8 Types of Drunkards Includes No Octopi

Word Matters, episode 89

word matters podcast logo

An exploration of Thomas Nashe's use of animals as metaphors for those who imbibe heavily; And what is the plural of octopus?

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: The most famous animal plural is the plural of the word octopus.

Ammon Shea: Perhaps in no area is English stronger and more vibrant than in the number of words that it has for the state of being drunk.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, Thomas Nashe's use of animals as metaphors for those who imbibe heavily. And what is up with the varied plural forms for animal names? I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: One could very well argue that categorization without words is impossible. 16th century satirist, Thomas Nashe, used words to categorize drunkards and Ammon thinks enough of those categories that he wants us to discuss them.

Ammon Shea: The English's language is particularly rich, well, in many areas, but one area is in the kind of bewildering number of synonyms that we have for certain words. And perhaps in no area is English stronger and more vibrant than in the number of words that it has for state of being drunk. This comes up in a variety of different ways. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin wrote a pamphlet and published it of several hundred different words for being drunk. And more recently, Paul Dickson wrote a book with the title Drunk in which he compiled almost 3000 specific words for being drunk throughout the ages.

Ammon Shea: We have so many words that lexicographers can't even manage to agree on what seems like fairly narrow semantic terrain. For instance, in 1623, Henry Cockeram defined the word perpotation as ordinary drunkenness. And then about a hundred years later, Nathan Bailey defined the same word as a thorough drunkenness, which could say something about the respective drinking habits and such of those lexicographers. Maybe Bailey was a lightweight so to speak.

Ammon Shea: But the fact remains that we just have so many words for "drunk" that we don't really know what to do with them all. So we can't fit them all in our dictionary. And there are just way too many and most of them are not really in common use anymore. But some of these we feel kind of bad about because they're lovely words and they're fun and they're interesting.

Ammon Shea: And a great example of words which we do not define, but feel it's in the public good to know, are eight types of drunks that came up in Thomas Nashe's 1592 satirical pamphlet, which was called "Pierce Penniless." And he didn't just come up with different ways of being drunk, he came up with eight specific kinds of drunk people. And this is also not just an illustration of how language has changed over time, but how language has changed, but some things remain unchanging. And that is the kind of drunk that you come across in a bar anywhere in the world. So for instance, his first kind is, and Emily, you can bear witness to this seeing as you are the owner and proprietor of a fine drinking establishment. You may recognize some of these.

Ammon Shea: For instance, ape drunk, which he defines as "Ape drunk is when he leaps and sings and hollers and dances for the heavens."

Emily Brewster: That's the fun drunk.

Ammon Shea: Right. And it starts fun. It gets less fun as it goes along because the next kind of drunk is lion drunk. And that's "when he flings the pot about the house, breaks the glass windows with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him."

Emily Brewster: Yeah, no good.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting about English as well is some of these words such as lion drunk have actual near synonyms in the language. For instance, barley chewed, which I think comes obviously from barley was a kind of Scot's term. It more or less is defined as "being drunk and mean."

Ammon Shea: We have swine drunk in Nashe, which is "when he is heavy, lumpish, and sleepy and cries for a little more drink and a few more clothes," which I have to say confuses me a little bit there at the end when a drunk wants a few more clothes. Drunk, yeah?

Emily Brewster: They're getting cold. That must be what it is.

Ammon Shea: I guess they're drinking outside that night. A sheep drunk is "when he's wise in his own conceit, when he cannot bring forth a right word." Which is a little different than I think our modern use of sheep, which the word has taken on more kind of connotation of somebody who follows unthinkingly.

Ammon Shea: Maudlin drunk is "when a fellow will weep for kindness in the middle of his ale and kiss you saying, 'By God, captain, I love thee. Go thy ways. Do not think of me so often as I do of thee. I would, if it please God, I could not love thee so well as I do.' And then he puts his finger in his eye and cries." So again, this may have been written in 1592, but I think for many of us, this kind of rings true today.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something about this at this moment in 1592, this is the age of discovery, but this is also the great age of collections, collecting things. The cabinets of curiosity, the sort of classification became a gentleman's hobby at this time. This is before there were monolingual dictionaries, and it seems like he was having some fun, but also that he was trying to classify like in a scientific way, a taxonomy of drunkenness.

Emily Brewster: It's a very human impulse, the desire to classify.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: That's an excellent, excellent point. There are only three or four more to go. Martin drunk is the sixth "when a man is drunk and drinks himself sober." Which I have to say, I'm willing to trust Thomas Nashe on many things, but this one, I don't think really rings true. That drinking himself sober.

Ammon Shea: Goat drunk is the seventh kind: "when in his drunkenness, he has no mind but on lechery." And that is perhaps something that we are unfortunately familiar with today.

Ammon Shea: And then the eighth, perhaps my favorite, is fox drunk: "when he is crafty drunk, as many of the Dutchmen be that will never bargain, but when they are drunk." Apologies to any Dutchmen or Dutchwomen listening to this. I don't think that this reflects our opinion. This is only Thomas Nashe.

Ammon Shea: It is interesting that he had to come up with these in a classificatory system as you said, Peter. And a number of people followed up and kind of imitated him in this. In the next 50 years, there was somebody who wrote "The Figure of Six," which was, again, a humorous collection of things arranged in groups of six. That writer had six kinds of drunkards. There was somebody else who had a figure of seven and somebody wrote a list of nine kinds of drunks. In 1617 Thomas Young added bat drunk, which is somebody who will drink privately and at night. But I think that's a very reasonable explanation of why you would come up with these kinds of things. Doesn't quite explain why we've ended up with 3000 words for being drunk in English though.

Emily Brewster: No, it doesn't. I want to take issue just for a moment with the fact that Thomas Nashe is describing his drunkards entirely through animal analogies until he gets to maudlin, and maudlin is from the name of Mary Magdalene. So they're all animals until one's a woman. I object.

Ammon Shea: I don't blame you on that, but at least he is referring to the drunkard and says men, which is probably in his experience. I don't think that this is a fair list. We'll put it that way.

Emily Brewster: No, I don't think it's a fair list. Merriam-Webster published a book called The Slang of Sin in 1998, written by Tom Dalzell, and it categorizes slang words according to basically the seven vices, right, from the church. The first category is alcohol. And among his alcohol slang, he includes an animal. This is the only one I noticed that was an animal name for a person who was doing a lot of drinking, and that was the word pigeon.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Emily Brewster: I know.

Ammon Shea: I never heard it.

Emily Brewster: A pigeon as someone who is drunk.

Peter Sokolowski: Is that in Americanism? I just wonder when that would be used. That's an oddity.

Emily Brewster: It is an oddity. It's not in Green's Dictionary of Slang and not in Grose's dictionary. When was that published?

Ammon Shea: 1785.

Emily Brewster: Okay. 1785.

Ammon Shea: That was the first edition.

Emily Brewster: Grose defined pigeon as "a weak, silly fool," like one who's easily cheated.

Ammon Shea: Oh.

Emily Brewster: There you can see maybe a pigeon is a foolish drunk. I don't know.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: And bringing it up to the 20th century, at least, in Webster's Third. One of the neat things that you can do online is search according to words used in the definition of the unabridged dictionary, Websters Third. And just doing that for the word drunk. So drunk being a word in the definition, I do see right away bagged, bevvied, blithered, blitz, blotto, boiled, bombed, and boozy and buzzed. And that's just through the "B's," so there's over a hundred of these used in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Now, if you want to do the same search, but for the word drunkard, we've got 22, among them bloat, borachio, fuddler. I'm not going to read them all. Rumpot, stewbum, swillbowl, tosspot. I don't see any animals in here though.

Peter Sokolowski: These words all sound kind of pre-modern. They sound like words from the famous Francis Grose Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Ammon can tell us a lot more about these dictionaries of cant language. There was kind of golden age of dictionaries of the language of the underworld.

Ammon Shea: And speaking of Grose, this is too good of an opportunity to not mention one of his finest entries. And I'm going to leave off some of his particularly more off-color entries, but a relatively PG one, which relates to the topic at hand is his entry was Admiral of the Narrow Seas. I'm going by memory so bear with me. I believe it referred specifically to a man who was so drunk that he leans over and vomits in the lap of the person next to him.

Peter Sokolowski: Very specific.

Ammon Shea: And I don't think that was actually in the first edition. I think it was in one of the later editions. But one of the things that's interesting to me about that and about Nashe, in general, is that we have this incredible storehouse of words for drunk. Most of them are really semantically narrowed. They're not just "drunk" or "drunkard." And very few of these words deal with the kind of extended meaning of what is a potentially, semantically rich terrain.

Ammon Shea: So Nashe talks about different kinds of drunks and whether he is right or wrong is almost immaterial to my mind, it's that he's trying to give a broader picture that I think is interesting. And there are very, very few words I think in English that actually do that. Some of the few that we do have in our dictionary are potvaliant and potvalor. And potvaliant refers to the state of being courageous when under the influence or drunk, and potvalor is the state they're in. And so that's an interesting distinction. It's not just drunk, it's drunk and fullheartedly courageous.

Emily Brewster: And not about an animal. I think it's very interesting that these are all animal terms that he has used as his analogies.

Peter Sokolowski: To me, it reminds me again of this age of discovery, which was an age of collecting collections. This is before museums. This is before dictionaries. And so if you were a gentleman of a certain social standing, you might do what became the Grand Tour and come back with interesting objects and taxidermied animals of your little hunts, a few paintings from Italy and France and that kind of thing. But they tended to be exotica. They tended to be things you didn't find at home, by which "home" meant in England.

Emily Brewster: Now, Thomas Nashe was not a wealthy man. And so I like to think of him as presenting an exhibit of these eight kind of drunks and bringing them around and showing them to people and perhaps making a penny or two off the exhibition of these eight kinds of drunkards.

Peter Sokolowski: He was a contemporary of Shakespeare.

Ammon Shea: Yes. And one of the things that many people feel is that many of the words which Shakespeare is thought to have invented because he is cited first for their use were actually in use in Thomas Nashe's writing some 5 to 15 years before Shakespeare used them. He was also very lexically inventive, and he has this wonderful rich vocabulary. Which even though he is certainly well known, has not been as widely studied and he has not given as much credit for his language as Shakespeare is.

Emily Brewster: Well.

Ammon Shea: Rightfully so, but still he's getting a little bit of the short end of the stick.

Emily Brewster: Well, it's good that we've talked about him today. I wonder how he would feel about us highlighting this particular set of his linguistic contributions.

Peter Sokolowski: He'd raise a glass, I'm sure.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster coming up, what is the plural of octopus? Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.Merriam-Webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S, @shop.Merriam-Webster.com

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: The plural forms for animal names are inexplicably varied. Two cats, three dogs, but four deer and plenty of fish in the sea, though also a variety of fishes. And then there's the puzzlement that is the plural form of octopus. We'll dig into them all.

Emily Brewster: For most of us, the period of time in which we talk the most about animals is when we're children or when we're talking to children. And that is aside from those of us who are farmers or biologists or zoologists. But we talk a lot about animals mostly when we're kids. And it's surprising to me how much variation there is in the plural forms of animal names for a set of vocabulary that is so frequently encountered when we're so very young.

Emily Brewster: So young children will call one mouse, "a mouse," and two, eventually they get that it's mice. One mouse, two mice. Plenty of animal names have got the regular English plurals, cat/cats, bird/birds, dog/dogs, puppy/puppies. A few of them have irregular forms like mice and lice follows the same form.

Emily Brewster: And then we have the other categories where there is no plural at all. We call it a zero plural. It's not true to say that there's no plural at all. It is that the plural form of the noun is a zero plural. It is identical to the singular form. So one deer, two deer. Not one deer, two deers. We have a lot of animal names that have both plural forms, the kind of traditional plural form formed with the plural -s suffix and the zero plural. So a type of fish: bass. You can have one bass, or you can have basses. You can have two partridge, or you can have two partridges. You can have two mink, or you can have two minks. One sheep. You never say sheeps. You just say sheep. One sheep, two sheep. That's that zero plural. One deer, two deer.

Emily Brewster: Many of the animals that have both forms, the one formed with the "s" and the zero plural, are animals that are hunted, fished, or trapped. And if you're one of the people who does this hunting, fishing, or trapping, you're more likely to use the zero plural. That's what the evidence shows. But the "s" form, the kind of more traditionally suffix formed plural use of the word, is often used to emphasize a diversity among kinds. So "I caught three bass," but "there are various basses of the Atlantic Ocean," for example. "A place where antelope feed," but "the various antelopes of Africa and Southwest Asia," for example.

Ammon Shea: What's also interesting about these curious animal plurals is that in the cases where a name for an animal takes on an extended meaning, the plural form reverts usually back to standard. So for instance, if there are an infestation of mice running through your house, they are mice. But if you have a large number of the connective devices to move the cursor on your computer, those are mouses. You don't have a bunch of mice on the desk. And similarly for louse, if you have many of them on your head, they are lice. But if your workplace, for instance, is infested with a group of caddish, ill behaved men, you would refer to them as louses, not as lice.

Emily Brewster: But I have seen in Staples, the manual devices for controlling the cursor, referred to as "mice."

Ammon Shea: Ah, so it goes both ways.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: I think, especially if we use it in the pejorative though, for instance, louse becomes louses. Ox, as well, everybody knows that the plural of ox is oxen. But what I remember as a child, when I used to play in Scrabble tournaments, was that the plural form of ox in a pejorative sense for people is oxes. And so it was always fun to try to play oxes because when I was a 12-year-old playing Scrabble, you play in a tournament and your opponent thinks a poor child can't even spell right. But this is Scrabble. It's a bloodthirsty game so I'm going to challenge him anyway. So he loses a turn and then you see light kind of die in their eyes when they realize that this is an acceptable variant in certain circumstances, and they lose the turn. Are there other pejorative animal terms where we revert the plural back to normal?

Emily Brewster: Well ass comes to mind, but I think they're always asses aren't they?

Ammon Shea: Yes. That's true. In life as in language.

Emily Brewster: Right? The most famous animal plural is the plural of the word octopus.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yes.

Emily Brewster: One of the things that is most fascinating to me is that the word octopus is actually surprisingly modern. 1759 is the date that we give in the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. That is the date of the earliest known use in English of the word octopus. It's actually pretty culturally significant, I think. Like the octopus is an animal that children certainly know to recognize from a very young age. It's really a pretty recent addition to the English language. And as its plural forms, we include octopuses, octopi, and octopodes.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, octopus, that word is kind of transparently Latin. It's a classic in what we call New Latin in which means a word coined often in the 17th, 18th centuries by scientists using Latin word parts.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And because it looks Latin with that "-us" ending.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. Yes.

Emily Brewster: Like in the word genus, like in virus, that's another one. That "-us" ending really does say Latin, Latin, Latin.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh sure. Sure.

Emily Brewster: But it just so happens that's not the case here. But because that Latin suffix is there, that Latin-looking suffix, the plural octopi was given to the word octopus and continues to this day to be a common plural. One octopus, two octopi.

Peter Sokolowski: Means that smart people who knew Latin pluralized it as if it were in Latin.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: But here's the thing, it's not ultimately from Latin. It was really only part of New Latin for a short time. It actually is Greek.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: And the Greek plural, if you want to be true to etymology, if you're going to let etymology be the driver of your pluralizing practices, you will want to say octopodes.

Peter Sokolowski: Which is the Greek manner.

Emily Brewster: Yes. But on the other hand, if you are a speaker of English and you want to recognize the fact that octopus is functioning as an English word in the English language, then you can just say octopuses, or you could say octopus in keeping with deer, et cetera.

Ammon Shea: The insistence on octopodes is to me a little bit like the people who insist that you should never say "the hoi polloi" because in Greek hoi means "the." So it's redundant, if you know your Greek, but quite honestly, most of your audience doesn't know their Greek. That's why we're speaking English. Does anybody use octopodes, aside of in a kind of self-referential to my own knowledge of Greek sort of way?

Emily Brewster: I only use octopodes because I think it's funny.

Ammon Shea: Okay.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. I bet it's one of those terms that's used more often to cite itself. It's a lot of fun to say. Another pattern is antipodes for antipode. It looks like that it was used to refer to Australasia, I believe. The sort of Southern hemisphere, former British colonies were referred by British colonials as the antipodes. It's not a word we hear a lot, but it is maybe the most common form of that particular Greek plural.

Emily Brewster: Maybe. Yeah. And it reminds me of epitome.

Peter Sokolowski: Which is also that Greek root. It also serves to remind us that the Greek language in large part was absorbed by Latin, which then morphed into French and then crossed the channel. A lot of English words that ultimately traced back to Greek, went through French and through Latin all the way back to Greek. There's a long trajectory. This is a different case because this was coined by scientists deliberately using these terms.

Ammon Shea: Antipodes is much more enjoyable to say. It does feel like you're speaking, you're channeling [foreign language 00:21:41] in every sentence that you use it.

Emily Brewster: There is a great quote from the Bradford Observer, which was a paper in West Yorkshire, England. This is from the 7th of November, 1873. "But as the octopus grew and multiplied, it became necessary to speak of him in the plural. And here a whole host of difficulties arose. Some daring spirits with little Latin and less Greek rushed upon octopi. As for octopuses, a man would as soon think of swallowing one of the animals thus described as pronounce such a word at a respectable tea table. In this condition of affairs, we are glad to know that a few resolute people have begun to talk about octopods, which is of course the nearest English approach to the proper plural."

Emily Brewster: Now, anyone with small children will know that the Octopod is the name of the vessel in which the Octonauts live. They are these do-gooders who live under the sea and they are a cartoon. I have several drawings of them in my house.

Peter Sokolowski: There's the word in Websters Third. Let's see if I can say it. Peristeropodes, which is defined as "a group of birds, comprising the curassows and megapodes and having feet with the hind toe inserted low down as in pigeons." Coming from the Greek word peristera, meaning "dove or pigeon." But we're getting into kind of obscure territory here.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. We have also the pygopodes, P-Y-G-O, which is the kind of classification of diving birds, including the loons, grebes, and sometimes the auks.

Peter Sokolowski: The important part for octopodes and the pode of P-O-D-E-S became in Latin P-E-D, ped, for "foot."

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: It refers to the legs or the feet of these creatures.

Emily Brewster: I do think that the best reason to use octopodes is really just because it's fun.

Ammon Shea: Is this really your preferred plural?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm sure I taught it to my children. They were ridiculously young to learn a word like octopodes. Why else am I going to be talking about multiple octopuses?

Ammon Shea: Right. So now you're spreading this in the world. You're inculcating this plural in your children. They're going to go forth and spread it among their friends.

Emily Brewster: Yes, that's what I'm trying to do. Although I will note that just now I said, when I'm talking about multiple octopus and I used the zero plural. So maybe I use both.

Emily Brewster: Before we leave animal plurals, I do want to point out that sometimes we use a plural form without really knowing that we are using a plural form, as with the word bacteria. Bacteria is a plural. The singular of that one is bacterium. So in that case, we're using a Latin plural.

Emily Brewster: In truth, a person should use the plural that feels most natural to them. In the case of octopus, you have a variety of options and they are all perfectly fine.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at WordMatters@M-W.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com.

Emily Brewster: Our theme music is by Tobias Voit. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!