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Friday, January 7, 2011

Flus, gnus, emus, and tutus

Flu season is upon us. The word flu is typically a mass noun, meaning it isn't often used in the plural. But, like all mass nouns, it can be, because there are many different kinds of flu. This raises the question: how do you spell the plural of flu?

If you found the word flus by itself written on a piece of paper, it would look very odd: "What the heck's a FLUSS??" you might wonder. Thus, you might be tempted to do something else with the plural, such as adding an e before the s. However, this would give you flues, which is the plural of a different word designating part of a chimney. Or you might think about sticking in an apostrophe, "flu's", but this is not recommended.

Bear in mind that words are almost never devoid of context that [fancy lexicographer word alert] disambiguates them. You probably did stumble over the title of this post, because of the lack of semantic context to help you. But if you are talking about flu in the plural, it is likely to be in a phrase like "colds and flus" or "there are a lot of different flus going around this year", so your readers shouldn't stumble, or at least not for long. There aren't many words in English ending in -u, but those that do exist (e.g. gnu, emu, tutu) all form their plural by simply adding an s. By the way, if you want to see some really funky tutus, visit this post.

You can, of course, also avoid the problem by sticking to using flu as a mass noun: "Colds and flu are taking a toll this year."

The word flu was a 19th-century shortening of “influenza”, which the English had borrowed from Italian in 1743. Influenza, like the English word “influence”, comes from the Latin influere (to flow in).In the Middle Ages, astrologers believed that an ethereal fluid flowing from the stars or heavens affected people's characters and events generally, so influenza in Italian and “influence” in English referred to the impact of the stars on human life. Since this kind of influence was thought also to cause illness, Italians used influenza to mean a “visitation” of an epidemic disease, an influenza of chicken pox, catarrh, and so on. When a particularly nasty flu outbreak hit Italy in 1743, people just used the word la influenza by itself. As flu does, it spread, and the English adopted the Italian name.

As for the part of a chimney, the flue, its origin is unknown.


  1. Hello,

    So, it then seems all examples of English words ending in "u" are short(ened) foreign words ?

    My own impression was that a plural for "flu" was to be made "creatively", that the word in itself doesn't admit a plural (say, "strains of flu" etc.).

    Speaking of plurals: would you comment on "fish-fishes", perhaps on other similar examples ?


  2. "Or you might think about sticking in an apostrophe, "flu's", but this is not recommended."
    I sure hope you wouldn't think that for long...

  3. Re: flus.

    A friend of mine once saw a menu featuring a dish containing "fungu".

    If you don't know what "fungus" is then you might well assume that it's plural and back-form a singular ....

  4. I love that story, Anonymus (are there two of you or one?? ;-) ). Actually, the same thing happens with the word "gladiolus" which many people think is the plural and thus have back-formed a singular "gladiola".


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.