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The word

Plural trouble

Uh-oh. Now there’s more than one kind of Prius

By Erin McKean
March 6, 2011

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You might not think linguistic issues would be high on the agenda at a car show, but don’t tell that to Toyota. At the Chicago Auto Show two weeks ago, the company announced the results of an online poll he held to determine the “proper” plural of its popular hybrid car, the Prius.

The poll was part of the company’s announcement of three new Prius models: a crossover hybrid, a small concept car, and a plug-in hybrid. Although none is on the market yet, the prospect of more than one kind of Prius meant the question of the proper plural had become urgent, at least to Toyota.

The Prius, of course, is tricky to pluralize, because it ends with an “s” and sounds Latin, both of which tend to throw English speakers into fits. As part of its marketing campaign, Toyota also created a series of jokey videos with James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio.” In one, Lipton interviews an octopus, who of course picks Prii (pronounced pree-eye) as its preferred plural; in another, William Shakespeare plumps for the faux-Latin Prium. More than 1.8 million votes were cast over six weeks, and the final winner was Prii, with 25 percent, followed closely by Prius, 24 percent; Priuses, 20 percent; Prien, 18 percent; and Prium, 13 percent (sorry, Bill). The winner has now been added to Dictionary.com’s entry for Prius. (Toyota has long been an advertiser on Dictionary.com’s site, including a 2009 campaign that linked Prius ads to words such as sustainable, green, and moonroof.)

Toyota is not the first to try to leverage people’s strong opinions about language to draw attention to a brand. Other companies have done similar campaigns — Nestle ran television ads featuring Shaquille O’Neal arguing about how to pronounce caramel (CARE-uh-muhl v. CAR-muhl), old cartoon ads for Heinz Worcestershire sauce played on the difficulty of pronouncing Worcestershire, and just recently The New York Times reported that Italian children’s brand Chicco is running a contest for parents to record their children saying “Chicco” (pronounced KEE-ko) with the winners appearing on a billboard in Times Square.

Toyota’s enthusiastic embrace of the plural is unusual in the business world. Trademark holders typically like to avoid their marks being entered in dictionaries at all. When I was an editor at a traditional dictionary, I had a thick file of letters from trademark holders demanding special treatment for their trademarks — or their immediate removal. The more knee-jerk the use of a trademark for the branded object becomes (think Band-Aid, Kleenex) the more the company starts worrying about “genericization,” the risk that its valuable brand will become so widely used that it loses trademark status. Xerox runs regular ads to remind people that the company prefers you to use Xerox only as an adjective (as in “Xerox brand photocopiers”) instead of as a verb or even as a plural noun (which they give, if you must, as Xeroxes). No fanciful ad campaign asking us to choose between Xeroxes and Xeroxim!

Toyota must feel that the risk to its trademark is outweighed by the positive publicity. Steve Rivkin, a branding expert and coauthor of six books on marketing strategy and innovation, agrees. He found the Toyota campaign “very much in keeping with the brand’s irreverent, cheeky personality.”

But have the people really spoken? Before the vote, both expert language opinion and general usage seemed to be firmly on the side of Priuses. Kory Stamper, an associate editor for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, was quoted in January by The Detroit Free Press as being “tempted as an English lexicographer to pluralize it as a regular English noun, Priuses.” Ben Zimmer, of the (recently canceled) On Language column for The New York Times Magazine, also threw in his support for Priuses: “We might as well form the word the way English plurals are formed.” In normal usage, people seem to treat Prius just like any other regular English plural, slapping an “es” on it. Newspapers and magazines, by and large, have unselfconsciously used Priuses since the brand entered the public eye in the late 1990s. (The Prius was first released in Japan in 1997.)

Despite the votes and the Dictionary.com imprimatur, I’d bet against Prii, and put my money on the more pedestrian Priuses. Most people will use the first form that comes to mind, the clearer and more English-y Priuses. People who care deeply about etymologically motivated plurals will use the correct Latin (Priora, meaning “earlier, better, or more important [things],” as Jan Freeman reported in this space back in 2007, citing Harry Mount, author of “Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life”). That leaves only the people who enjoy voting in online polls to throw their weight behind Prii.

And me? I admit a sneaking fondness for the completely unjustifiable and rarely suggested Prixen, which makes the cars sound like one of Santa’s reindeer.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.