People often assume, plausibly enough, that because nada ‘nothing’ is a negative and begins with an n-, it is derived from or related to the word no. But plausibility isn’t necessarily reality, and this turns out to be another case of “No todo lo que brilla es oro. / Not all that glitters is gold.” Surprisingly, nada traces back to Latin nata ‘born,’ a feminine past participle of the verb that has become Spanish nacer. The Latin construction non… res nata meant ‘not… a born thing,’ therefore ‘nothing.’ Notice how similar that is to the English idiom not in all my born days, which is a way of saying ‘never.’ Eventually the res got dropped, as did the non, but not before imparting its negativity to the nata; the resulting Spanish nada thus became a negative in its own right. Colloquial English has begun using nada as a lighthearted synonym of nothing, which, in contrast to the Spanish, clearly reveals its origin as no + thing. From nada Spanish has made nadería ‘a little nothing, something insignificant, a trifle.’

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Au naturale isn’t natural « Spanish-English Word Connections
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 19:21:44

    My mother used to say, “Nada — not a damn thing,” pronouncing “nada” and “not a” the same: /’nɒ.də/.


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 19:53:15

    Funny how the English words come reasonably close to the Spanish—at least in American English. When I grew up in New York, non-Hispanic English speakers never used nada, but now, and not only because I’m in Texas, I hear English speakers using a fair amount. It’s interesting that your mother used it. Did she have a connection to Spanish or Spanish speakers?


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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