The Nuances of Nu!

4 Dec

It is amazing how two little letters can have so many meanings. Just an inflection of the voice, a shrug of the shoulders, a smile on the face, a touch of the hands, and ‘Nu” means something totally different.   It is not that surprising though, ‘Nu” is a Yiddish word. And translating it would be almost impossible.


As a question “Nu” lets you say in one word so many sentences: Are you okay? Did everything go well? What are you planning to do? What will happen? What is the story? Do you need help? What do you need? What can I do?

All those questions from one two-letter word. But all are questions to show concern for another person.


As an exclamation “Nu” has a different meaning. For a mother, this version of “Nu” is very important. Nu! Did you get your homework done?! Are you ready?! Let’s get going! I have had enough! Get your act together! Listen to me! What is going on here!

Mothers and fathers who use Yiddish have been asking/demanding of their children the “Nu” demand for generations. I can still hear my Grandmothers or my Mom saying “nu!” to me in my head.   Who needs a conscious when you have “Nu”?

There is another parental use of “Nu.” This is used for an older child with a long-term partner. This is the “are you getting married? What is happening? Nu? What is the story here? Do I get to plan a wedding?

Then there is always the parents’ very happy “Nu!” The Nu of joy comes about when you are almost a grandparent and you call to ask Nu? What does the doctor say? When? Or you can call your friends and say, “ Nu! I am a grandparent!”

So, Nu?

This more gentle version of the “Nu” question is more comforting. This is when you take someone’s hand in yours and try to offer comfort.   This is the compassionate Nu.

You went for your Mammogram today? So nu? How did it go?

Your Mom or Dad is sick? So nu? How are things going for them and for you?

Your child is having problems? So nu? Can I help?

You are depressed? So nu? You have friends, are you getting help.

The compassionate ‘Nu’ is very important. It is beyond just friendship. I think it shows compassion for acquaintances as well as close friends. So nu, I will be there for you. Don’t worry is part of tzedakah and rachmanis. We need to show others how we care. And the right ‘Nu’ at the right time can help.

Oy, Nu!

The Oy Nu is much more intent. The Oy Nu offers sympathy on a much higher level. Your parent passed away, “Oy Nu!” What can I do to help with the shiva with comforting you.

Your child was in a car accident. Oy Nu!

The Oy Nu! Is sort of an ‘I cannot believe that happened.   How? Why?’

A definition of “Nu” says it means “so.” But that is not really correct. It has many more meanings than that! Nu is nuanced. It is a small word with big aspirations. With intonations, inflections, shrugs and sighs, flashing eyes and temper, each of these changes the meaning of Nu.

I cannot imagine a world without this word. The nuances of ‘nu’ keep language fun and exciting, as well as simple. With one word, I can say so much!

3 Responses to “The Nuances of Nu!”

  1. rochellewisoff May 24, 2017 at 9:42 am #

    Dear Ellen,

    I so enjoyed this piece. Thank you for writing it and for sharing it with the rest of us. Nu? What else can I say?. L’chaim!



    • zicharon May 24, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

      Thank you! Rochelle. It was a wonderful experience.


  1. WAXING POETIC | Rochelle Wisoff-Fields-Addicted to Purple - May 25, 2017

    […] So much Yiddishkeit. I felt like I’d come home. I particularly enjoyed Ellen Portnoy’s piece “The Nuances of Nu.”  […]

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