I did a double take while reading a small item in Time recently. The magazine declared the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric automobile, to be one of the “50 best inventions of 2009.” I had never heard of the Leaf and thought the name rather odd, but no matter. What caught my eye was this last sentence of the story: “Nissan will produce 50,000 Leafs each year at its Oppama plant, southwest of Tokyo, starting in the fall of 2010.”
“Leafs?” Really? Shouldn’t that be “50,000 Leaves?”
It is easy to be confused when we need to pluralize a word that occurs in an unfamiliar context. When the computer mouse was new technology, I heard people talk of “computer mouses” more than once. People now seem comfortable speaking of “computer mice,” but it took some time for people to recognize that there was no reason that the name of the input device and the rodent shouldn’t have identical plurals.
The first time I remember someone’s getting tripped up when using a word with an irregular plural in an unfamiliar context was in seventh grade. The class was learning about poetry, and a classmate was asked to indicate the stressed syllables in a stanza. Before answering, Bruce, who was exceedingly conscientious, asked,“Do you want me to give the foots, too?” The teacher gently pointed out that, even in the context of poetry, the plural of “foot” is still “feet.”
Perhaps not always, however. In some circumstances, either because of the nature of the referent or the proclivity of speakers, the irregular plural is replaced by a conventional plural. For example, footlights are sometimes called “foots,” never “feet.”
Assuming that Time is following Nissan’s conventions, it may be that the car maker views “Leaves” as not too obviously referring to their new brand name. “Leafs,” while jarring for now, does not share that deficiency. If the Leaf catches on, we will, no doubt, get used to talking about a showroom full of Leafs.
It really is a stupid name for a car.