Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Octlantis: A Word and World With Many Tentacles

Novelist and comic book writer Warren Ellis has said, "Science is beautiful and mysterious and a source of constant wonder."

In a talk from 2015, he discussed how "science fiction is actually written by science" with sci-fi writers struggling to keep up with real-life scientific studies, which feature everything from zombie stars to time crystals.

Ellis was no doubt smiling about a recent story that demonstrated the wonders of science, nature, and language: the discovery of Octlantis, an undersea community of octopuses just off the eastern coast of Australia. Octlantis is big science news because octopi, though known for their intelligence and talents, were thought to be solitary. Octlantis the word is a reminder of how a novel blend can perfectly name a new phenomenon, no matter how wild or multi-tentacled.

The Octlantis study was published in Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology, documenting a community of at least 15 octopuses and contradicting the notion that this intelligent, talented beast is a withdrawn loner. A description of Octlantis by Rachel Feltman in Popular Science sounds impressive if not idyllic: "It's a magical place, full of dens built from the chewed-up remains of clams and scallops and featuring a collection of fishing lures and beer bottles. Within its three separate beds, octopus live in harmony. For octopuses, anyway. They actually fight pretty much constantly, but they're still sharing space. For the most part." I reckon they cooperate better than most people.

Octlantis is part of a tapestry of cool words associated with this topic. The type of octopus who hustles and bustles in Octlantis — Octopus tetricus — is called the gloomy octopus or common Sydney octopus. In 2009, a previous group of octopi were found living together in Australia's Jervis Bay, surprising researchers and spawning the term Octopolis. That word and suffix have more history behind them: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records an example of Sugaropolis from 1898, plus recent examples of herringopolis and smokestackopolis. It's more unusual, though not unheard of, to see –lantis take a swim on its own in words such as doomlantis and fishlantis. But neither city-centric affix can compete with octo- for productivity.

The most popular recent use of octo- was for Octomom, aka Nadya Suleman, who gave birth to octuplets in 2009. The OED records many ultra-specific examples of this prefix at work. An octoglot edition of a book features eight tongues. An octodactylus critter has eight fingers, but an octodentate beastie has eight teeth, while an octopetalous flower has eight petals. Octophthalmous beasties have eight eyes. In chemistry, there are octocarbons and octochlorides. Anything octoradiant or octosporous produces eight rays or spores, respectively. And of course there's October, the eighth month in the Roman calendar.

Octlantis and Octopolis look right at home in that group of words, but their etymology is slightly different: they’re octo-words once removed. Octlantis is a coinage merging octopus and Atlantis, not octo- and Atlantis. Octlantis isn't an undersea city with eight boroughs — neither is Octopolis. So octo- is more of a grandparent than a parent of these new words.

Speaking of octopus, that word has often been productive lexically, probably because the animal is one of the most unusual and distinctive in nature, with its bulbous head and eight tentacles. The OED records many metaphorical uses going back to the late 1800s, including references to a "commercial octopus," "electric octopus," and "concrete octopus." A 1993 use from Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes is characteristic of octopus metaphors: "Whatever the economy, the wealth, the cultures, and the political systems of countries had been before they came within reach of the North American octopus, they were all sucked into the world market." The Cartographic Land Octopus has been a favorite of map-makers who want to portray an evil empire.

Octopuses belong to the order Octopoda, which has inspired meaty adjectives (such as octopodous, octopoid, and octopodan) that can be used literally or metaphorically. In his 1961 book The Rim of Space, A. Bertram Chandler described a sci-fi monster in down-to-the-ocean-floor terms: "It looked, with its sprawling roots, like some huge, octopoidal monster at the end of a giant's fishing line." Dean Koontz, in his 1985 novel The Door to December, described "the enfolding, octopodal city of Los Angeles." Such comparisons are not kind to the animal, but metaphors and idioms are rarely kind to anybody. Language itself is a rabid octopus.

Much like the recent discovery of a mammoth fatberg beneath London, the existence of Octlantis tickles the imagination, though in a far more pleasant manner. Octlantis could be fodder for plenty of books and films, from innocent children's fare to complex sci-fi. Perhaps the evil Fatberg could menace the octopodal denizens of Octlantis in a future summer blockbuster. But whatever fiction such findings may spawn, the reality will be hard to top.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.