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Why there's no such thing as a 'bicep': A tour of words that sound like plurals but aren't

No kudo for clamping the forcep on your bicep

Usually English plurals are pretty easy. Just add s: one dog, two dogs. We know some plurals don't use s: children, deer. There are some nouns that we seem to use only in the plural: thanks, congratulations, scissors. And we know some words ending in s are not plurals: prowess, radius. But sometimes we go off the rails a bit… Here are 10 words that can make even the most confident speakers question their grip on the English plural.

KudosOf course it may seem nicer to get lots of kudos, like it is to get lots of thanks or congratulations. So we may think this is another word that's always plural. But actually it comes straight from Greek κῦδος, which means "praise, renown" — singular. Kudos isn't like thank-you notes; it's a mass object like butter — the more there is, the more you can spread around — but it's still singular. In Greek there is a plural form; if we borrowed it, it would be kudoi. But nope. Some writers now use a reanalyzed backformed singular, a kudo, but that's not formally correct, and you won't get great kudos for using it. Anyway, why be stingy with the praise?

GyrosHere's another Greek word ending in –os. It's not surprising that gyros would be taken as a plural, especially since gyro is an English word, shortened from gyroscope. But that kind of gyro is a metal thing that spins very rapidly; for the meat thing turned slowly, it's a gyros. And if you go with the plural from Greek, you can have two gyroi. (From this we could also jokingly pluralize Winklevoss as Winklevoi, but their name's not Greek. Not Latin either, so don't take Winklevi as standard.)

Homo sapiensMost of us know that Homo sapiens is the technical Latin designation for humans: you, I, movie stars, your barista, even the noisy kid down the block, are all Homo sapiens. So that means that each one of us is a Homo sapien, right? Nuh-uh. In English you may be a human being, but Homo sapiens is Latin for "human knowing": sapiens is a modifier meaning "knowing" — the –ens is like English –ing. The noun is Homo, and it's singular. So to be truly sapiens, keep the s. Strictly speaking, the plural of Homo sapiens ought to be Homines sapientes, but since it's a species name, let's just leave it as it is, shall we?

SpeciesA species name? Should that be a specie name? No, that's another specious singular. We're used to things ending in –ies being plurals, but this is another word that's taken unchanged from Latin, and in Latin –ies is a noun suffix, sort of like –tion. Species is a noun formed from the verb specere, meaning "look" or "behold." In Latin, the plural of species is — wait for it — species. Two hundred years ago, some English authors pluralized it as specieses. Now some people want to backform a singular specie. But the only place you'll see specie properly used is the ablative form, seen in technical references to coins (from Latin in specie) or in the Latin saying sub specie aeternitatis, which means "in the aspect of eternity" — a timeless truth. Unlike the forms of words, apparently.

BicepsIf you bend your arms, you flex your biceps, so if you bend one arm, you flex one bicep, right? Sorry, nope — ceps is a combining form of Latin caput, meaning "head"; the muscle has two points of attachments, so it's two-headed. There are also triceps and quadriceps, but no monoceps… and no cep at all, no exceptions. But boy, why do these Latin words have to be such heavy lifting sometimes?

ForcepsForceps aren't another kind of muscle. They're those scissor-like clamps used in surgery. So we may be tempted to think of forceps as like scissors. But don't ask the operating room nurse for a pair of forceps. No, you want a forceps. If you want to hold on to the Latin plural, you could have multiple forcipes clamped on your biceps. But the –ceps in forceps is not the –ceps in biceps; it's from capere, which means "take." The for is shortened from formus "warm" and has nothing to do with fork or English for.

RabiesDo you think rabies was formed in Latin like species? If you do, you're right. The root it's from is rabere, a verb meaning "rage, rave." If someone says their dog doesn't have rabies, just one rabie, don't believe them (and stay away from their dog). But you probably won't hear it — while some of the words above are very susceptible to reinterpretation as a plural that can have a singular, rabies seems safer. So to speak.

There are some, on the other hand, for which it is far too late:

PeaseIf you're eating peas, you're actually eating something that was once pease, a mass object like rice — the individual items too small to be worth counting. Remember pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold? But then people decided they did want to count them, and they reanalyzed pease as peas and gave us pea. There's no going back now. Pea as a singular has been around since the 1600s.

CeriseIf you recognize the word cerise at all, you'll most likely recognize it as a color, or as the French word for "cherry." But if you look around at European languages, you may notice that their words for "cherry" tend to have a consonant in the neighbourhood of "s" somewhere after the "r": Spanish cereza, German Kirsche, Dutch kers, French cerise… all tracing back ultimately to Greek kerasos (κερασός). The Old Northern French word was cherise. The French won a war in 1066 and ran England for a while, and cherise was one of the many words English speakers picked up. But they took it for a plural, with cherry ending up as the singular. Sometimes these conquests and contacts bear odd fruit.

Dice?Two dice… one die. Sounds like another backformation, doesn't it? In fact, it really was singular die first, pluralized as dies. Then, because at that time we didn't say the pluralizing –s as "z," it came to be spelled dice, perhaps by analogy with rice, especially since it could refer to a mass of diced meat or vegetables or a bunch of gaming dice thrown together. As Jonathon Owen tells us, some other words were also pluralized that way but then got taken as singulars or uncountable mass nouns: truce from trues, bodice from bodies, pence from a clipped form of pennies. And now we sometimes see a dice.

Words can be a real gamble… you don't always know what number is going to come up when you roll the dice!

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