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shameless pleading

News

And “old” stands for “Over Last Decade,” right?

Dear Word Detective: Today our local newspaper Helsingin Sanomat had a brief note on the word “news.” It said that Fred Sedgwick, in his book “Where Words Come From,” explains that it comes from from a saying: “Tidings from North, East, South and West.” Now, my suspicion was roused immediately as acronyms, as you say, were almost nonexistent before WWII. Could you please put Mister Sedgwick to his right place? — Topi, Finland.

news09I’d like to, but he’s in the UK and I’m in the US, and that’s too far for me to throw a cream pie. According to his publisher’s website, “Fred Sedgwick is a poet, former headteacher and the author of many books in the areas of literature, expressive arts, education and creativity.” “Expressive arts”? There’s a passport to lifetime unemployment. On the other hand, among his “many books” (eight with this publisher alone) is something called “How to Teach with a Hangover,” which is a wonderful title and makes me like him.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t alter the fact that you are right and Mr. Sedgwick is wrong about “news.” The rest of his book may be flawless and fascinating, of course, but one howler like that tends to ding the credibility of his entire enterprise. There’s really no excuse these days for this sort of mistake, with Oxford English Dictionary (OED) available either on a CD-ROM or on the internet by subscription (or free, if your local library system offers it).

Just for fun, let’s see what the OED would have told Mr. Sedgwick about the origin of “news,” had he asked: “News (noun) — Special use of plural of NEW n., after Middle French nouvelles …”. You’ll notice the absence of any reference to “north, south,” etc., in that etymology.

In fairness to Mr. Sedgwick, he didn’t invent that story about “news” being an acronym (and acronyms were indeed very rare before World War II, while “news” has been with us in its current form since the early 16th century). That “north, east, etc.” story has been floating around for years, and it actually makes a certain amount of superficial sense. Unlike some of the awkward and overly-elaborate fables you hear about the origin of some words, this one “fits” nicely. “News” does indeed come from all directions.

Another reason that the story seems plausible is that “news” sounds like the plural of a noun, “new,” but “new” is not a noun in English. It’s an adjective, and our adjectives don’t have plurals. We don’t speak of “three news cars.” You can have a hundred and they are, together, still simply “new cars.”

The answer to this muddle, and I’m glad there is one, lies not in English but in French. Back in the 14th century, someone noticed that the French used the word “nouvelles” (“new”) to mean “new things” in Bible translations from the Latin “nova” (also meaning “new things”). If the French could use a plural of “new” to mean “new things,” went the reasoning, so can we, and the English noun “news” was born.

There was apparently some resistance among the general public to the use of “news” as a singular noun, however, and many people tried to make the form make a bit more sense by treating it as a plural (“There are never any news,” W. M. Thackeray, 1846). But the singular “news” is now almost universally accepted, and only in the form of English spoken in India are you likely to find “the news are good.”

1 comment to News

  • Simon

    I would argue that we have or are in the process of acquiring a noun form of “new” via “newb”/”noob”. I don’t think it would take much of a leap for it to lose its restriction of referring to a person.

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