The Today Programme – and John Humphrys – were in relaxed, easy-going mode this morning, as they discussed the thorny question of the plural of Latin words in the English language.
Humphrys, an admirable stickler for correct English language, professed not to be sure whether the single of bacteria was bacterium; and whether the plural of referendum was referendums or referenda. I suspect he has his own strong feelings but was sacrificing them on the altar of objectivity.
When it comes to the referendum question, I’d say both answers are right. Referendum is, in Latin, a rather odd word: the neuter singular of the gerundive, which is a verbal adjective. So referenda is, strictly speaking, the neuter plural of an adjective. It can, though, be used in the noun sense to mean “things that need to be reported”; still not quite the same sense as our own English use of referenda. Given that change in meaning in English, I think it’s OK to treat it as an English word, and so call them, in the plural, referendums.
After all, that’s what we do with Amanda – itself a feminine gerundive singular. If two Amandas came to a party of yours, you wouldn’t say, “The Amandae had a very good time” – which is correct Latin. You’d say, “the Amandas”, because amanda – the Latin word, meaning “a feminine object that needs to be loved” – has been adapted to form the English name, Amanda.
The same ambiguity applies to bacteria, I’d say. Strictly speaking, bacteria is the plural of bacterium. So, if you were referring to a single unicellular, microscopic organism, you would call it a bacterium. But I think the incorrect singular, bacteria, has become so widespread in English that it is now acceptable. The line that it is derived from a Greek word – bakterion, meaning “staff” – is a pointless but enjoyable sideshow, for pedants only.
This is not to say you should ignore the rules of grammar and syntax, as modern, slipshod relativists demand. The best position to take – and the smuggest – is to know the rules inside out, and then break them, when euphony defeats correctness.