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