Word of the Day / Nu Nu Nu

You can't claim to understand Israeli culture without mastering the powerful and multifaceted word 'nu.'

Shoshana Kordova
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'Nu, nu, nu!' is like a verbal slap on the tuches.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Shoshana Kordova

Nu, so how much ink can you spill already on the many nuances of the Yiddish word "nu"? Answer: Just a little more, en route to explaining the meanings of this versatile little gem.

Spoken once, one of the word's primary functions is as a prompt. It serves as both a nudge (“Nu, are you coming?”) and as a query that relieves the speaker of the Jewish burden of actually responding. "Nu"requires little adornment, but it does demand precise inflection to get across the intended meaning. (If someone tells you, “I went on a date last night,” and you answer "Nu?" you're probably digging for more information, as in "Do tell" or "And?" But if your tone of resignation is just right, you might be asking “So what?” or sarcastically, “So what’s new about that?”) For those familiar with this popular Yiddishism, which has become an integral part of spoken Hebrew, these nuances are nothing "nu."

When using the word "nu"in triplicate, inflection, expression and context can be largely thrown out the window. All you really need is a finger. No, not that finger. Wagging a pointer finger at a young child while saying, "Nu, nu, nu!" is like a verbal slap on the tuches – an admonishment not to touch the vase from Savta Sarah or grab the toy her sibling is playing with. It basically means, "No" or "Don't do that," the Jewish Israeli way.

Come to think of it, the face and voice do play a role here too, but it’s always the same role. You won’t be taken seriously if you try to say “Nu, nu, nu!” with a smile on your face. You have to adopt a stern frown, to show that the scolding is serious business – even if the disciplinarian act lasts only as long as it takes you to get the words out of your mouth.

Now you know what to do the next time a child in your vicinity is committing a misdemeanor. So nu, what are you waiting for?