February 28, 2004

Kudos, cherries and peas

Cursed as I am with the habits of a scholar, this sentence about the prospects for The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King getting Best Picture happened to catch my eye as I was reading film critic Lisa Jensen on the Oscar prospects in the local free newspaper in my home town:

The thrice-nominated trilogy has yet to win the gold, but this year the King will prevail with a cumulative kudo for the sheer enormity of the entire three-part, 10-hour production.

Ah, Lisa has made a very understandable mistake, I thought. Kudos does look like it might be the plural of a word kudo, I thought, but it isn't. It's a Greek singular. Well, I was wrong.

I am, as I say, cursed with the habits of a scholar, so I looked it up even though I thought I knew I was right. And in the wonderful on-line Webster's dictionary I found that I was simply behind the times. Kudo is listed. It occurs as a reasonably well-established back-formation from kudos, and a usage note is appended to its entry:

usage Some commentators hold that since kudos is a singular word it cannot be used as a plural and that the word kudo is impossible. But kudo does exist; it is simply one of the most recent words created by back-formation from another word misunderstood as a plural. Kudos was introduced into English in the 19th century; it was used in contexts where a reader unfamiliar with Greek could not be sure whether it was singular or plural. By the 1920s it began to appear as a plural, and about 25 years later kudo began to appear. It may have begun as a misunderstanding, but then so did cherry and pea.

So it's me that made a mistake. If the word had been introduced last week in the Santa Cruz free newspaper Good Times, it could perhaps be called an error. But in use since the 1920s? That's two generations. No, Lisa Jensen is just using the resources of the English language (she's not a Greek, after all). And I just learned one more thing I didn't know about English. Three things, in fact, because I also looked up cherry (from Old North French cherise, wrongly taken to be a plural) and pea (Middle English pease was taken to be a plural too; it came from Latin pisa, which actually was a plural, but of pisum, not of *pi!).

[Note added later: Lisa also uses enormity to mean "hugeness". Cullen Murphy has ignorantly insisted that this is a mistake, but it is not just a perfectly kosher usage, it is actually older than enormity meaning "horrendousness" or "horrendous thing", as Mark Liberman pointed out here. And her Oscar predictions were stunningly correct: she predicted just about everything exactly right. A big triple kudo to Lisa for the enormity of her knowledge and insight.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 28, 2004 09:03 PM