Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Trump's "Apprenti": The Return of the Bogus Latin Plural

Earlier this week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich emerged from a powwow with Donald Trump, and they had an announcement to make. Trump told reporters that, at Gingrich's request, he was starting a program for disadvantaged New York schoolchildren, modeled on his competitive reality TV show "The Apprentice." "We're going to be picking ten young, wonderful children, and we're going to make them apprenti," Trump said. That's right, he said apprenti.

He next said, "We're going to have a little fun with it," so perhaps Trump was simply having some fun with the pluralization of apprentice. In fact, he very well may have been harking back to another playful use of apprenti, from the fourth season of "The Apprentice" back in 2005. The final two contestants in that season were Randal Pinkett and Rebecca Jarvis. In the finale (video here), Trump picked Pinkett as the winner with his trademark line, "You're hired." But in a surprise twist, he asked Pinkett if Jarvis should also be hired by the Trump organization. Put on the spot, Pinkett responded, "There is one and only one apprentice, and if you're going to hire someone tonight, it should be one. It's not 'The Apprenti,' it's 'The Apprentice.'" He pronounced apprenti as Trump later would, as "uh-PREN-tie." (You could also interpret Pinkett as saying that it's not "The Appren-tie" — in other words, there's no tie at the end between two winners.)

I'll give both Pinkett and Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that they weren't seriously suggesting that the plural of apprentice is apprenti instead of apprentices. Or maybe they were only half-serious. In any case, there's a long tradition of jocular faux-Latin plural forms, as Neal Whitman discussed earlier this year in "Phoni Latin Plurals." Neal mentions such examples as Elvi(i) as a plural for Elvis, stewardi(i) as a plural for stewardess, and Winklevi(i) as a plural of Winklevoss (referring to the Winklevoss twins depicted in the movie "The Social Network").

In most of these cases, -i (or -ii) gets used as a pseudo-plural suffix for words with an unstressed [əs] ending, mimicking the pluralization of second-declension masculine Latin nouns like alumnus/alumni, stimulus/stimuli, or radius/radii. When borrowed into English, (real) Latin plurals tend to have their -i ending pronounced as "eye" rather than "ee": alumn-eye, stimul-eye, radi-eye. (The "ee" pronunciation would be more loyal to Latin, but the "long i" pronunciation has become entrenched in English for Latin-derived words with i at the end of a syllable.) And so it goes with bogus plurals like apprent-eye.

It's not just humorous plurals that get the fake-Latin treatment, however. Words that are etymologically Greek, such as octopus and platypus, very often take -i plurals in English, such as octopi and platypi, where Greek word formation would dictate octopodes and platypodes. Nobody goes around saying octopodes and platypodes in English, of course, and since octopi and platypi misapply Latin morphology to Greek words, you're better off simply pluralizing them as octopuses and platypuses. But those "sound wrong" to many people, as Ben H. Winters discovered when deciding between octopi and octopuses for his book Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (see this column for a description of his struggle).

When dealing with classically derived words, English speakers often prefer pluralizing -us words with -i instead of -uses, except for words that are frequently used, such as circuses, campuses, and viruses. (But see Neal's column for recent attempts to pluralize virus as viri(i), even though that plural doesn't exist in Latin.) I think that when the [əs] sound at the end of such words comes into contact with the plural suffix [əz], it ends up sounding awkward to many people, as if it's a malformed "double plural." (Think of Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" saying, "What has it got in its pocketses?") When there's a choice in English between, say, syllabuses and syllabi, a dislike for the [əsəz] sequence can lead many to select the -i ending for the sake of euphony — or perhaps for the sake of sounding smart. (Or a little of both.)

All of this helps to explain why, when Toyota held a contest earlier this year to determine the plural of Prius, the winner was Prii, rather than the more sensible Priuses. (Never mind that, if you really wanted a Latin plural, Priora would have been a better choice.) The pronunciation, as the Wall Street Journal reported, is "PRE-eye," and Dictionary.com even went so far as to add that pronunciation to its entry for Prius. Although the whole thing was obviously just a publicity stunt to get people talking about new Prius models, the effort was instructive in how English speakers navigate through uncertain waters of pluralization. A promotional video for the "Prius Goes Plural" campaign shows just how uncertain those waters can be (with old friends like octopus and platypus making appearances):

What do you think? Was Trump trying to sound smart when he said apprenti? Or was he just riffing on Randal Pinkett's joke from six years ago (assuming it was a joke)? Let us know in the comments below!

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Phoni Latin Plurals
Neal Whitman explores the propensity for fake Latin plurals of English words.
The Detroit Free Press reported on the Prius-pluralizing P.R. stunt.
The author of "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" got stuck on the plural of "octopus."