The thud rattled my apartment, causing two pots – each containing a cactus – to fall from the counter and shatter on the floor.
I dashed to the window and looked, expecting to see a meteorite in place of where Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home had once been. Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home was still there, and, in fact, Mrs. Thigglethorpe was on the front lawn with her pet hippopotamus. There were no signs of a natural disaster outside.
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me.
“Ay!” I screamed, startled. I whipped around only to find Bill the Grammar Consultant lying in a heap on the floor.
“Calm down, calm down, it was I who crashed,” said Bill.
I did calm down. “Bill, what are you doing here?”
“You got any pastrami?”
“A thick, tangy pimento cheese spread, and a nice loaf of pumpernickel?”
“Yep. The pumpernickel came out of the oven just an hour ago, and a container of pimento cheese spread is on the bottom shelf in the fridge, next to an unidentified container that I’m afraid to open.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Bill. “Thanks. I’ll be right back. Oh, and sorry about the cacti.”
“Cacti – the plural of cactus.”
“It’s not cactuses?”
“Well, actually, both are used. In Arizona, they just use the word ‘cactus’ to be both singular and plural. Using ‘i’ for plurals is common with words pulled into English (or Anglicized) from the Latin.”
“Okay, then. Let me go clean up the cacti mess.”
“Cool. See ya,” remarked Bill as he darted into the kitchen and out of sight.
I began whistling that old favorite tune about whistling while you work. “I love having Bill around,” I thought to myself. “He adds such clarity to my grammar life.” I quickly put the pieces of cactus onto a tray and set it on the dining chair that was near the window, just to get it out of the way so that I could sweep the dirt and broken chards of pottery. In a moment, I had the floor as clean as a whistle.
As I turned to remove the cacti from the chair, I heard Bill’s voice call out, “You got any mustard?”
“Uh, no. Sorry,” I apologized.
The doorbell rang. I stood there for a second, debating whether to remove the cacti from the chair or open the door.
Bill stepped out of the kitchen. “Nauseating nephew?” he asked.
“The doorbell rang. Shouldn’t you answer it?”
“Uh, yes. Good idea,” I said, moving toward the door.
“I’ll just, uh, you know, go finish the pimento cheese spread. You weren’t going to use that tonight for anything, were you?”
“Uh, no,” I answered. Bill darted back into the kitchen.
“Come in, come in, dear birthday aunt,” I said, opening the door and motioning for her to enter.
She smiled. “Why, thank you.”
“Now, let’s get down to business. Food is ready,” I said, gleaming with pride. With a flourish, I lit the candles on the table. After all, I wanted this to be a nice birthday dinner for Aunt Ruth.
“Food is ready? Oh my, you’re so efficient. May I sit down?”
“Yes, please do,” I said.
She plopped into the chair next to the window before I could stop her. For a moment, her eyes were as big as saucers and her cheeks turned beet read, and then she let out a scream and exploded off the chair, knocking over my table along with the flaming candles. Her dress instantly caught fire.
“Water! Water!” I yelled, not quite sure to whom but hoping somebody would hear.
Bill ran into the room with a pitcher of water and instantly poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her. Wisps of smoke curled from her head and dissipated into the room.
“Hi Bill,” sighed Aunt Ruth, “and thanks. I’m glad you were here!”
“Oh, you know me. I was just minding my own business quietly in the kitchen, but then I heard the call for water and I smelled the acrid odor of burnt underwear. I figured something was awry. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me for anything.”
Aunt Ruth and I sat down and commenced eating.
“Mmmm, this is delicious, darling nephew,” remarked Aunt Ruth as she swallowed the first bite of my new culinary creation. “What did you say this was called?”
“I’m glad you like it, Aunt Ruth. This is my Jules Verne Special.”
“What’s in it, if I may ask?”
“The key ingredient is octopus,” I said rather nonchalantly.
Aunt Ruth turned all the colors of the rainbow in less than a second, going from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to indigo to violet faster than you can say, “Roy G. Biv.”
She began coughing violently. “Quick!” she gasped, “get me (cough) some (cough cough) water!”
“Water!” I yelled, feeling a sudden sense of deja vous.
Bill ran back into the room carrying another pitcher of water, and before I could stop him he poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her for the second time in less than five minutes. I’m not sure how it worked, but it did stop Aunt Ruth from coughing.
Dripping, Aunt Ruth sat there and stared at the large tray that I had used to serve the Jules Verne Special. “How many, may I ask, octopuses did you use for this recipe?”
“Hold it right there,” said Bill.
“Don’t tell me that octopuses isn’t the right word,” muttered Aunt Ruth.
“Okay, I won’t tell you that,” said Bill. There was a large pause.
“Well, is it or isn’t it?” sighed a flustered Aunt Ruth.
“It can be either octopuses or octopi,” said Bill quietly.
“How can it be either?”
“It has to do with its Latin roots and whether it’s a second declension or fourth declension noun.”
“Never mind. Just know that we have a lot of unusual plural nouns in English and it behooves us to learn them.”
At that moment, I heard the roar of animals outside my window. A quick investigation revealed that Mr. Ledbottom had brought his pet hippopotamus over to play with Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s pet hippopotamus.
“What’s the noise?” asked Aunt Ruth.
“Just a pair of hippopotamuses out on the grass.”
“That’s hippopotami,” said Bill, “just as it’s rhinoceri.”
“Rhinoceri?” I asked. “That sounds like a room where a baby rhinocerous might live.”
“Listen,” said Bill, “if you’re going to use a noun, you’ve got to know the plural for that noun. That’s called Plurality Responsibility, or Pluronsibility.”
“Is it really?” I asked.
“No, not really,” responded Bill. “I do like that word though.”
“Well,” sniffed Aunt Ruth with an air of superiority, “I think we should continue to keep our focuses on real words, not pretend words.”
“Focii,” corrected Bill.
“Beg your (cough) pardon?” said Aunt Ruth.
“You’re still coughing, Aunt Ruth,” I said.
“Tell me about it. I think some of the octopuses – octopi, excuse me – accidentally went down my sarcophagus.”
“That’s esophagus,” said Bill with a smile.
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I had forgotten that word. I should remember esophagus. It’ll come in handy some day. Mommy said you never know when we might need to talk about esophaguses.”
“Esophagi,” said Bill.
“No way,” said Aunt Ruth.
“Yes way,” he responded. “And just in case you’re wondering, it’s sarcophagi.”
“Mommy never told me about sarcophagi.”
“No,” said Bill, “but I’ll bet your mummy did.”