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In search of the wild kudo

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: “Kudos” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, according to most usage guides, including the new third edition of my grammar book Woe Is I. Example: “The kudos for Einstein was not theoretical.”

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its very best. But English is a living language where the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Here’s the story. The noun “kudos” comes from a Greek word meaning praise or renown. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.”

The first published reference for “kudos” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular (like “chaos” and “pathos,” two other words of Greek origin), it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or renown of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

During the ‘20s, the usage guide says, people began using “kudos” as a plural meaning praises. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees – kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And here’s a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W adds, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The usage dictionary cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx that describes in hyperbolic fashion the praise for a TV show from customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York, including a guy sitting on a toilet bowl who “swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few other examples of the singular “kudo” and plural “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

So what’s going on here? The OED says the singular “kudo” is a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is a plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural ”kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so – sort of. It says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage guides aren’t so open minded. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, for example, describes “kudo” as “a degenerate back-formation.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” writes R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

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