Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
We're in the middle of awards show season. January saw the People's Choice Awards, the Critics' Choice Movie Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the action continues this month with the Grammy Awards next week, culminating with the Academy Awards on February 24. This isn't even counting the nomination announcements for these awards, which began in December, or other shows such as the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, bringing up the rear in March. Although Broadway's Tony Awards are given out in June, and TV's Emmy Awards are spread into several events throughout the year, January and February are an extended kudofest for the show business and recording industries.
Yes, "kudofest." I discovered the word in an issue of Entertainment Weekly a couple of months ago, but I have found it attested as early as 1998 in the online newsgroup alt.gossip.celebrities. A related term, kudocast, specifically marks the televised nature of these ceremonies. The earliest attestation I've found for thatis in a September 10, 1996 article in the LA Times, which used it to refer to the Emmys.
A primary promoter of kudocast has been Variety magazine. Its writers use the word regularly, and since at least 2001, kudocast has had an entry in what Variety proudly calls its "Slanguage Dictionary" of show-business jargon. Kudocast was specifically mentioned that year in a New York Times story on Variety, and also in a 2005 NPR story on Variety's 100th anniversary. (That story also highlighted the verb ankle, which has the usefully vague showbiz meaning of "quit or be fired"; for more on that, read Ben Zimmer's Language Log post.) In addition, numerous blogs talk about this kind of jargon and include Variety's definition of kudocast among their examples.
Kudocast is an interesting specimen of word formation, both for the kudo- and for the -cast. Let's talk about -cast first. The -cast comes from broadcast or telecast — or maybe neither. My analysis is that after television and broadcast were blended to create the portmanteau word telecast, -cast on its own came to behave as a suffix to mean any kind of airing of recorded material. It's not a fully fledged word: When it's not attached to anything else, cast is a verb meaning to throw, or a noun referring to what you wear while your broken arm heals, or the performers in a drama, or maybe something else — just not a word that means some kind of broadcast. But attach it to some other word or partial word, and the "broadcast" meaning returns, ready to be modified by its partner word, as in sportscast, simulcast, and podcast.
Vincent Renner, an associate professor of English linguistics at the University of Lyon, calls partial words like these "quasi-lexemes by truncation," and mentions -cast and kudocast specifically. However, I prefer the name "libfix," proposed by Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky, who explains the term like this:
A portmanteau word (useful or playful or both) invites other portmanteaus sharing an element (usually the second), and then these drift from the phonology and semantics of the original to such an extent that the shared element takes on a life of its own — is "liberated" as an affix.
Libfixes are like affixes (i.e. prefixes or suffixes) in that they attach to other words instead of standing on their own, but they don't supply the kind of functional meaning of affixes such as -ness, un-, and -able. Instead, they provide the meaning of an entire word, as if they were actual, full words participating in a compound. For example, the scandal that came to be known as Watergate has given us the now-ubiquitous libfix -gate, which allows us to add the meaning of "scandal" to any noun we please. But by itself, gate still just means a gate.
So much for -cast; what about kudo-? It's clearly from the noun kudos, meaning "praise", but what happened to the -s? Actually, sometimes the -s is present. There are about 80 hits forkudosfest and 10 for kudoscast in the ProQuest news database. But they only begin to appear in 2004; they're mostly not from Variety; and they're less frequent than the kudo- variants. So we still have the question of what the coiners of kudocast were doing, and how all the current users of the word think about it.
It could just be that the nouns kudos and telecast were blended, and like many blends, the parts that survived were the beginning of the first word (kudo-) and the end of the second one (-cast). But if -cast is a libfix, it's more plausible to look at kudo as an entire word that -cast is attaching to. And as it turns out, kudo is an entire word.
Kudos, borrowed from Greek, is first attested in 1831 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Sometime during the next 120 years, that final -s was interpreted as the plural suffix, leading to the backformation of singular kudo. This development from a singular non-count noun (kudos) into a plural noun (kudo-s), followed by a new singular count noun (kudo) has happened with other English words, such as cherry (from ciris) and pea (from pease). The OED's earliest citation is from 1941, although I'm not entirely convinced about that example. Their 1950 citation, however, is unmistakable:
A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men's room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.
A more recent example, from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, mentions "the ultimate scientific kudo."
Producing an obvious singular like kudo is a sure sign that someone considers kudos a plural, but there are subtler signs that you can pick up even when the -s is still hanging on. For one thing, you can pay attention to what kudos agrees with. If it appears with plural determiners like many, that's a giveaway, like in this 1961 OED example: "This did not win Mr. Eisenhower manykudos in the press." The same goes for plural verbs. Any time you hear someone say "Kudos go" to someone instead of "Kudos goes," you know you've just heard kudos interpreted as a plural.
Subtler still, there is the pronunciation. If the final consonant sounds more like a [z] than an [s], that's a sign of reinterpretation. The reason is that that's what the plural suffix in English sounds like after vowels. Think of the difference between does and dose. A final [z] sound tells you we're talking about more than one female deer; a final [s] means just one measure of medicine. Not only can you hear the difference between [z] and [s]; you might even hear a difference in how long the vowel is pronounced. The [o] before the [z] in does is pronounced for a slightly longer time than the [o] before the [s] in dose. So if someone's pronunciation of kudos sounds more like ku-does than ku-dose, chances are they're interpreting it as a plural. (Actually, both these pronunciations are different from the original one given in the OED entry. If the personal computing revolution had come in the 1800s, kudos and Q-DOS would have been homophones!)
Compound words like kudocast and kudofest (and for that matter, kudoworthy) are one more phenomenon that flushes backformed kudo out into the open. Speakers who might never talk about one kudo might still produce kudo in one of these compounds, in the same way that I once heard a veterinarian's assistant talk about out cat's "rabie tags".
It's interesting that kudos underwent backformation while other classical Greek borrowings in -os have not. I've never heard anyone talk about a single patho or etho, or pronounce ethos or pathos with a final [z]. On the other hand, I know I thought cosmos was a plural when I was a kid, until I heard Carl Sagan pronouncing it with final [s], and began to realize something was amiss.
In fact, hearing a word pronounced with final [s] can be a strong deterrent to backforming a singular. Just look at the plural dice. It ends with a final [s], and many speakers over the centuries have not realized that it's the plural of die. For them, dice is just one of those words whose singular and plural are identical, like sheep. In a post on the blog Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen tells about this and other cases in which a plural noun that ended with [s] in Middle English was reanalyzed as a singular noun.
For that reason, I suspect that speakers who created the singular kudo probably read the word kudos long before they heard it spoken. This, plus the fact that it's not too difficult to think of kudos as meaning the countable "compliments" instead of the singular "praise", made it easier for a backformed singular to develop. (Maybe the same thing happened with the Modern Greek borrowing gyros, which has been thoroughly reanalyzed as a plural.)
However, one participant in the alt.usage.english newsgroup has a different take. In a message from March 2004, Raymond Wise distinguishes between "erroneous back-formation" and "intentional back-formation," and argues that kudocould be a case of either or both:
The word "kudos" was used somewhat humorously from the very beginning: It was a slang expression among university students. Both "kudos" in the plural and "kudo" in the singular may have originally been jocular usages, or may have been errors, or may have been both, some people coining them out of humorous motives and others coining them out of error!
He's right about the origin: The OED's etymology calls kudos "University slang" and "colloq(uial)" — so he could be right about the intentional backformation. If he is, though, it's surprising that singular kudo took about a century to show up in print.
With all this talk about kudocasts and kudofests, maybe you've gotten inspired and would like to go to one. If you do, be careful. Otherwise, instead of taking in a thrilling presentation of awards for best cinematography, or best assistant director, you might find yourself at a mixed martial arts tournament, with contestants trying to best each other with a hybrid of karate and judo!