Peter Jones


The mistake made by the Taxpayers Alliance may one day be standard English

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What is a ‘kudo’? According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, it is a mark of honour, many of which should be given to the Commons’ British Infrastructure Group, for demanding the scrapping of Air Passenger Duty.

The Alliance clearly thinks that ‘kudo’ is the singular of our ‘kudos’. It is not. Kudos is singular already: it has been brought into English from ancient Greek κυδος (‘glory, honour’). But is it ‘wrong’?

‘Kudo’ is what is known as a back formation, generated by removing a word’s prefixes or suffixes to create a brand new one. Such back formations are rampant in English. Take the Latin pisum, ‘pea’. The Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons, the source of our English, who came to these isles after the Romans left in the 5th century ad, had been trading with the Romans for many years, and in the process absorbed much of their vocabulary. Pisum was one such word they brought with them to Britain.

Over the centuries that became ‘pease’, as in ‘pease-pudding’. But that looked like an English plural. So the singular was obviously ‘pea’. QED.

It gets worse. Take the fourth stem (translat-) of the Latin transfero. Latin, as it did very commonly, formed from it the noun translatio to which we added ‘-n’ for our noun ‘translation’. All very proper. But then the noun-ending was removed and a brand new form, a verb ‘I translate’, was back-formed from it. Shock horror. Such examples could be multiplied in their thousands.

And why not? Romans thought the adjective iratus ‘angry’ was the fourth stem of a verb and out of it back-formed the verb irascor ‘I grow angry’; and that the ne- of nequeo ‘I am unable’ hid a verb queo ‘I am able’. Romans plundered other languages too. Who knows that there is a Latin word git? Romans got it from Semitic: it meant ‘black cumin’.

The more one learns about language, the less easy it is to pontificate about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ usage. One reason why we do so is because the Greeks and Romans did. Cicero looked back to a time when (he thought) ‘practically everyone spoke correctly, unless they had lived outside this city or some alien trait of home environment had corrupted them. But the passage of time has surely brought about deterioration in this respect both at Rome and in Greece. For there has been an influx into both Athens and this city of many tainted speakers from different places. All the more reason, then, why the language must be purged…’ and so on. No surprise that Cicero tried to resist taking over foreign, especially Greek, words. He mused about how to translate Greek sôphrosunê (‘moderation, self-control’) into Latin: ‘sometimes I call it temperantia, sometimes moderatio, sometimes also modestia. But I do not know whether this virtue could better be termed frugalitas…’

Cicero, who admitted elsewhere that he spoke very differently from the way he wrote, was talking here of elite Latin. Pliny the Elder thought of Latin as a sort of anti-Babel measure, bringing together ‘the discordant and wild idioms of so many people by the shared use of a language for communication’. But while the evidence suggests this was true at the level of literary and official language, at the sub-elite, ‘vulgar’ (as it is called) level, huge differences soon became apparent.

What ultimately counts is clarity: ‘I wood of bin dead’ as against ‘Do not write on alternate lines’ (think about it). But the only means to avoid chaos in the written word is convention (convenio, ‘come together, agree’), tacit agreements among publishers of books, magazines and papers. This levels the playing fields for everyone, and that is why it is so important. But conventions change. One day kudo may be conventional. Currently, it is not. But who knows? One day, rhinoceros may be the plural of rhinocero.