I’ve been doing a great deal of research lately into the origins and history of the Yiddish word nu and have made a discovery that has changed my whole outlook on life.
If you think that nu comes from German, you’re wrong; if you try to trace it back to Slavic, you’re going to hit a dead end. As I’ve just found out, we’ve been nu-ing since we were slaves in Egypt, and maybe even before.
It turns out that Nu (with a capital “N”) was the Egyptian name for the limitless cosmic waters that precede creation; ancient Egyptian texts describe the creator as being alone with Nu before the work of creation had even begun. They also tell us that creation will one day be destroyed and all will be returned to Nu.
Nu, what does this teach us? We’ve always known that the spirit of the Lord moved over the face of the waters; now we know the sound that that spirit must have made at the instant when it hit those waters. The Egyptians seem to have misunderstood the nature of that Israelite nu . “Nu, yehi or, let there be light”: G-d wasn’t talking to the waters, He––Who is sometimes said to speak Yiddish during the week and Hebrew only on Shabbes––was simply speaking the way that He speaks.
And now we know how this world will come to an end. When the Lord utters the final nu, the one that lets meshiekh know that he’d best get a move on.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.
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The words “chai kok” which is an acronym of eighteen kaiser kronen silver came to mean a paltry sum….how could such an amount be considered a paltry sum?
Zeit azay guht uhn git ah derklerung oib ihr vet hubn tseit.
There are two factors. The most obvious one is the pun on kak, meaning faeces. So “I’ll give you eighteen pieces of poop.”
Secondarily, there’s the now archaic fuller form of the idiom: khay kak serebros. The last word is Russian and means silver. So, I’ll give you eighteen Austrian pieces of Russian silver, i.e., a coin–Austrian and Russian at the same time–that doesn’t exist.