nada

People often assume, plausibly enough, that because Spanish 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 ‘to be born.’ The Latin construction non… res nata meant ‘not… a born thing,’ in other words ‘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. From nada Spanish has made nadería ‘a little nothing, something insignificant, a trifle.’ Colloquial English has begun using nada as a lighthearted synonym of native English nothing, which, in contrast to the Spanish, transparently reveals its origin as no + thing.

©2014 Steven Schwartzman

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Juan Luis Calbarro
    Jul 09, 2014 @ 12:45:16

    Curiously, in Catalan the same structure dropped the non and the nata elements, letting res to convey the meaning of “nothing” to our day. Similar to French rien (from Latin accusative rem).

    Reply

  2. shoreacres
    Jul 09, 2014 @ 21:39:26

    The first thing that caught my eye was, “No todo lo que brilla es oro.” Sure enough, the venerable Brillo pad got its name because of its ability to make pots and pans sparkly and bright.

    An expression I hear from time to time is, “De nada.” In context, it seems to mean, “It was nothing,” and seems to be used as a polite response to thanks. Is this right?

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 09, 2014 @ 22:07:21

      Having grown up with Brillo and having always pronounced it the American way, as Brill-o, I remember being startled when I heard someone in Honduras pronounce that brand as Bree-yo. Of course that’s the normal pronunciation of the word brillo in Spanish, but I hadn’t shaken off the association I had with the product from the United States.

      You’re correct that De nada, like the equivalent De rien in French, carries the sense ‘It was nothing’ and is a standard response to a thank you.

      Reply

  3. Jim G
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 13:12:45

    Since you mentioned Brillo and brillar, perhaps we should add glister to glitter. A pedant corrected me once about all that glitters. Forget the pedantry, la palabra glister brilla…

    Reply

  4. Jim G
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 14:00:40

    Reply

  5. Maria F.
    Jul 28, 2014 @ 23:06:31

    It’s interesting to see how “no” also became present active nō, present infinitive nāre, perfect active nāvi (no passive)
    “natar” (present tense natas, past tense natis, future tense natos, imperative natez, conditional natus), which also means to swim or float, so “nada” is also “swim” and “nadar” is the infinitive form of the verb.

    Reply

  6. Maria F.
    Jul 28, 2014 @ 23:45:56

    I think this one stems from the Proto-Indo-European *sneh- (“to flow, to swim”) and Ancient Greek νάω (náō).

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 29, 2014 @ 08:07:12

      You’re correct that Latin (with infinitive nāre) is from a different Proto-Indo-European root than the one that led to Spanish and English negative no. The American Heritage Dictionary renders that reconstructed root as snā-.

      Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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