Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

New Development for Backformed Kudo

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2013

Singular KudoA couple of years ago, in a post about the backformation of the Boy Scouting-related singular noun Webelo from Webelos, I mentioned the similar backformation of kudo from the Greek borrowing kudos. Here are a couple of examples from COCA (the source of all the other examples in this post, except as noted):

  • And there was a little kudo called the Award of Merit
  • One even resulted in the ultimate scientific kudo.

The OED has kudo from as far back as 1941, though I’m not so sure about that citation. But their 1950 citation is a clear example:

A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.

This backformation is the most obvious sign that someone thinks of kudos as a plural, but other clues can be detected even in the absence of the giveaway form kudo:

  1. Pronunciation of the s in kudos as [z], as if it were the plural marker
  2. Lengthening of the /o/ before this [z] — the same difference you hear in the pronunciation of gross [groʊs] and grows [groʊːz]
  3. Plural verb agreement when kudos is the subject of a clause:
    • Kudos go to San Diegobased Qualcomm Corporate Foundation.
    • Critical kudos acknowledge the success of her approach.
  4. Use of count-noun determiners with kudos:
    • Many kudos for the essay by guest host Sharon Paul
    • A few kudos to get you started

Three months ago, I saw another step in the development of backformed kudo: its use as the modifying part of a compound noun. Compound nouns usually, but not always, have a singular as their first element — the noun that modifies the head noun. For example, we have gumball machines, not gumballs machines. So even someone who might never have occasion to reveal a backformation by talking about “one rabie” might well talk about attaching rabie tags to their pets’ collars. Similarly, in the October 5, 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly, there was this sentence about TV’s Emmy awards:

The last time nipple covers, shrimp truckers, and demented garden gnomes were mentioned during an Emmy telecast was the year 19 hundred and … never. But that’s what made the 64th annual kudofest on Sept. 23 so engrossing–if a tad bewildering. (“Best and Worst of the Awards,” Lynette Rice, p. 21)

COCA provides two more such examples, also from EW, and also about award shows:

  • He predicts a shiny night for four-Buckle nominee Brad Paisley, forecasts Sugarland to win Video of the Year for ” All I Want to Do, ” and believes that this kudocast will appeal to those beyond the country-fried set. (2009)
  • If you loved seeing Jack Black … rock the children silly on the big screen, you might contract a case of the giggles watching him host this kiddie kudocast (say that 10 times fast). (2006)

However, I’ve discovered that kudo isn’t always a backformation. If you’re talking about mixed martial arts, it’s a portmanteau of karate and judo!

6 Responses to “New Development for Backformed Kudo

  1. Eugene said

    I don’t have access to the OED, so I often use the Online Etymology Dictionary. I find it useful and generally objective, but their entry for kudos derides ” the barbarous back-formation kudo.” Did the barbarians attack Greece? I thought Rome was their victim.
    Anyway, this is a nice example of native speaker intuition regarding a borrowed term. How could we not analyze kudos as a plural? I searched COCA for “kudos” and example #13 from Good Housekeeping seems typical. “The fresh veggies won kudos from the tasters, as did the sauce.” Did the tasters get together and decide to award one kudos? One the contrary, each taster awarded a kudo, but the important thing is the total number of kudos received. The award probably wasn’t unanimous, so I wonder what the opposite of a kudo would be.
    By the way, “tapas” actually is a plural in Spanish. I wonder how long it will be before people start talking about a tapa. Actually, I see 48 examples on COCA. Is that still considered a back-formation in English?

    • Ran said

      > […] ” the barbarous back-formation kudo.” Did the barbarians attack Greece?

      “Barbarous” is just an adjective for an error in morphology (a “barbarism”; as opposed to an error in syntax, which is called a “solecism”).

      > How could we not analyze kudos as a plural?

      Well, the /s/-sound at the end (cf. “logos”, “ethos”, “pathos”, “bathos”, “Eros”, “Porthos”, “Athos”, etc.) could have been a hint. As Neal points out in the entry, the reanalysis as a plural came with a change in pronunciation, to /z/. I assume this means that people mostly knew the word from reading it, rather than hearing it. (Contrast “pease”, which was reanalyzed as a plural (whence singular “pea”), despite the spelling giving a contrary hint. Though admittedly, spelling was not so well-standardized back then.)

      • Eugene said

        Interesting. I’d guess that the reanalysis is what drove the /z/ pronunciation rather than the other way around. It isn’t the spelling that tells us whether or not to voice the plural; in fact, we always spell them with /s/ and native speakers aren’t aware that they voice plurals.
        The other Greek words you’ve cited might be interesting to look at. Maybe they aren’t used in contexts that make them look plural, and they seem like low-frequency items compared with “kudos.” How often does a typical native English speaker hear “pathos” in conversation or even in the media? The proper names don’t count as they’d never be pluralized.

      • Eugene said

        Sorry about the Barbarian joke. I thought an over-the-top choice of adjective deserved to be made fun of.

  2. Ran said

    For “kudofest” and “kudocast”, I wonder if it we could instead interpret “kudo-” as a combining form of “kudos”. (Compare “SeinFest”, “simulcast”.)

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