Saturday 11 September 2010

The Duck-Billed Platypus

The platypus is a strange creature. When a specimen was first sent back to Europe from the eldritch antipodes it was widely thought to be a fake that had been stitched together from the parts of other animals. But the Inky Fool is interested only in words.

First, some irritating people insist upon latinising their plurals. I have deplored and condemned this habit already. But platypus is one of those lovely cases where latinising leaves the pedant with linguistic egg upon his face. The plural would not and could not be platypi. The word is Greek in origin and the plural would therefore be platypodes, or flatfoots.

Secondly, I have already written of how telegrammists paid by the word, and how this changed their prose style. Pennies sharpen the mind and the nib. Probably the most efficient telegram ever written was on the subject of the humble flatfoot. A platypus is a kind of monotreme. Monotremes are very odd mammals, if indeed they are mammals at all. The platypus is venomous (the poison comes out of a spur on its ankle) and can locate its dinner using electricity. They were also rumoured to lay eggs, but nobody was sure of this until 1884 when a naturalist called W.H.Caldwell found a platypus nest. He was terribly excited, but he was also in Australia and wanted to get the news back to a proper country as soon and as cheaply as possible so he sent a four word telegram:

Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.

Which means: platypuses lay eggs and within those eggs the young is formed from only a part of the yolk.

Thirdly, one of the greatest poems in the English language was written about a platypus. It is by Lord Patrick Barrington and describes the dazzling career of a duck-billed platypus in the British Foreign Office. The first stanza runs thusly:

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity,
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity.
He used to live in lodgings with myself and Arthur Pervis,
and we all went up together for the Diplomatic Service.
I had a certain confidence, I own, in his ability,
He mastered all the subjects with remarkable facility;
And Purvis, though more dubious, agreed that was clever,
But no one else imagined he had any chance whatever.

And you can read the rest here.

Finally, what do you get if you feed a mallard to a cat?

A duck-filled fatty-puss.


  1. And what do you get if one accidentally dips its beak in a cowpat, then gets sat on by the cow, then makes an awful row about it all? A muck-billed flatty-fuss.

  2. It's always fun when students ask me the proper plural of octopus and I get to say octopodes; now I can mention platypodes as well. Pedantry is okay in my book but pedants should at least what we're talking about. One thing I hold to be true: I'd rather marry a duck-billed pledipus than end up like old Oedipus rex.

  3. Since Cecilia Dart-Thornton's "Ill Made Mute" the word eldritch has left me cold.

    Thank you for platypodes.

  4. Neither "octopus" or "platypus" were borrowed from Greek - they were borrowed from scientific Latin. What are the plurals in scientific Latin? I'm not sure they even have plurals.

    Anyway, judging by citations in the OED, the plurals in English are "octopuses" and "platypuses", closely followed by "octopi" and "platypi".

  5. once apon a time the end

  6. Dear Mr. Forsyth, I wish to use the picture of platypus in my literary book 'Nature of Life'. I need your permission to use it. Please write me back regarding this on my email:

    Ugesh kumar

    1. I just pulled it off the Internet somewhere and don't own copyright.