The Lesser Kudos


Ammelaphus imberbis, formerly Tragelaphus imberbis, the lesser kudu
(Image via Wikimedia)

Kudos: the Greek word κδος means, according to the OED, “praise or renown,”  implying  that the person who possesses that quality has done something to merit it.

On the rare occasion when I have to say it out loud, I find myself taking pains to pronounce the second syllable so that it rhymes not with nose but with MS-DOS. That reference gives you an idea how long it’s been since I’ve said it aloud.

The word kudos isn’t a plural noun, but it’s often treated as if it were. My Chronicle colleague Sara Lipka brought to my attention the notion of kudos meaning congratulations (an exclamation always pluralized—nobody says “Congratulation!”). It’s true that one of the uses of kudos seems to be, if I can indulge in a little anachronism, as a gentile version of mazel tov. 

Usage mavens get their feathers in a fuss over kudos as a plural. A lot seems to be at stake, as if it might be disrespectful to Homeric warriors. The kudos problem, however, isn’t a simple one.

Nouns that end in ess are often plurals, and unfamiliar nouns ending in ess seem like good candidates for pluralness. But kudos seems to present a special challenge, maybe because it bears a striking resemblance to the name of that noble four-legged  animal, the kudu. As readers of Lingua Franca doubtless know, both the greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and the lesser kudu (Ammelaphus imberbis) are antelopes with stripes and curly horns, found primarily in East Africa and crossword puzzles.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the visual similarity between kudus and kudos contributed to a belief that a kudo was a shy and retiring noun best observed in the plural.

Antelopes aside, the OED  reminds us that the word kudos  entered English as British university slang c. 1831,  back in the day when witty university lads could sling a little Greek around and be understood by one another.

From kudos, meaning renown, it’s a short leap to hailing someone as renowned, or wishing someone be acknowledged and renowned. “Kudos to you!” suggests that the speaker acknowledges the auditor’s renown or wishes that others would.

And from there it’s a short leap to the popular usage of kudos to mean accolades. An accolade, loosely a public compliment or expression of praise, began as the laying of the sword upon the recipient’s shoulder, a symbolic gesture that brought the bestower’s power (and blade) interestingly close to the recipient’s neck or col.

The kudos police sometimes pick up on examples where it isn’t clear whether the writer understands kudos  as admitting of partiality or as a plural noun. Travis got no kudos for climbing the greased flagpole doesn’t make clear whether Travis earned not any kudos at all or not even a single kudo.

Similarly, the usage “kudos to”  seems to sit on the fence. We don’t know if the speaker, offering an accolade, intends a singular or a plural. Kudos to Gladys, who was the first to figure out the new check-requisition protocol. In such usages, we are reminded that kudos has come a long way—mostly down—since Diomedes strode across the Trojan plain.  

Brutally singular usages of kudos at least have the advantage of being clear. The OED cites the humorist Fred Allen in 1950 referring to a man who “added his kudo to the acclaim,” while the unintentionally humorous Wall Street Journal  is cited for its 1961 observation “This did not win Mr. Eisenhower many kudos in the press.” Mr. Allen probably knew what he was up to; the WSJ should have.

The hideous verb to kudize flickered on the horizon in 1873. If you hear it —ever—please remind the user that it is so 1873.

On the grocery store shelf, Kudos are—and here I use the plural intentionally—a brand name for a chocolate-covered granola bar. Thus has kudos collapsed, or maybe crumbled, into a gastronomic plural.

The real problem with kudos, however, isn’t grammatical. It’s socio-politico-cultural. Not to put too fine a point on it, but few of us are heroes, and little that gets done today deserves good old-fashioned ancient kudos. A pat on the back, a raised glass, a shout-out on social media maybe, but none of those are the real thing.

I’m afraid that ours is just an era of the lesser kudos after all.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano.


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