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


16 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).


  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?


    • 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.


  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…


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


  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.


  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).


    • 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 the Spanish and English negative no. The American Heritage Dictionary renders that reconstructed root as snā-.


  7. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Jul 18, 2017 @ 08:05:43

    it’s interesting how this thread went from nada to natar to nadar while also veering to brillo and glitter and glister. what happens if we toss in a little nata – nata agria, or natilla which is what ‘they’ call sour cream in costa rica? sometimes one can get quite disoriented while swimming through a world of similar-sounding words!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 18, 2017 @ 08:21:26

      Good play on words about swimming through a world of similar-sounding words.

      In Honduras 50 years ago sour cream was called crema agria. I still remember that it came packaged in clear plastic bags. I was surprised (and quite pleased) to find sour cream in Honduras because even in the United States back then it wasn’t readily available outside of large urban areas like New York.


      • Playamart - Zeebra Designs
        Jul 18, 2017 @ 08:29:34

        i just veered off on a search about natilla, which mentions a sweetened colombian… that search routed me to an article about how nata/natilla is made, which nudged me over to an article about ‘raw’ milk and a mother’s story about her son’s allergies, and a bacterial infection that almost cost him his life…..

        goodness, it’s easy to spend the entire day following those whims of interest, though i do miss a good library and the luxury of spreading all of those books on a table and diving into those same interests…


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Jul 18, 2017 @ 08:37:03

          I know how it is on the Internet: one thing quickly leads to another and then another, and on it goes. It’s easy to forget how I got to a given website.

          I used to spend hours and hours in the University of Texas libraries, even after I wasn’t a student there any more. Now I mostly go to a branch of the Austin Public Library, and that’s to take out a book or DVD, not to do research. It’s so much easier to find things on the Internet. If only it were as easy to be able to trust what we find on the Internet, as there’s so much misinformation. At least with books there’s an editor and therefore some degree of screening, although I’m afraid that nowadays the editing often isn’t as good as it used to be.


          • Playamart - Zeebra Designs
            Jul 18, 2017 @ 08:56:11

            Yes, you are right about the editing. A friend of mine once worked as an editor, and he said when he reads a book, if he catches more than three errors, he puts the book down – no matter if it’s a number-one title. ‘The editor did not do his/her job,’ he said.

            Wooooh. I respect his attitude but also think he’s probably missed some great stories!

            You’ll laugh to know that the way things in this ‘mañana world’ overlap and twist from hour to hour, I often think that I must be in a Gabriel García Márquez story!


            • Steve Schwartzman
              Jul 18, 2017 @ 09:15:13

              Sounds like your friend and I would get along just fine. I’m not sure I’ve ever put a book away because of too many errors, but I have turned off programs on BookTV, a weekend feature of C-SPAN that shows talks and interviews about non-fiction books. Some of the young people speaking and being interviewed can’t stop saying “you know,” “I mean,” “sort of,” or “like” in every second sentence. After a few minutes of that I can’t stand listening to any more degradation of our language.


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