What's nu? Not so much.
I've heard it referred to as "yellow Jeep syndrome": You buy a yellow Jeep, and then you start seeing yellow Jeeps everywhere. A colleague suggested the other day that "not so much" has gotten to be such a hot phrase that I should keep an ear cocked for it. Then, boom – NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" had an "audio postcard" on a diner in New York City in what was once a working-class neighborhood in Manhattan: "The area has gone upscale, but the diner – not so much."
In The Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun, the headline on a piece on the TV show "Rock Star: Supernova" (a cousin of "American Idol") was, "Rock Star hot in Canada, not so much in US."
Then a news site in Pennsylvania had this in an introduction to a story on nutrition: "Seems there's no secret that some foods are good for you, others not so much, and a little moderation will get you far in life."
This is different from the "not so much" of a sentence like this: "What he suggested was not so much a radical change but a series of minor evolutionary changes." Here, "not so much" is part of the setup. It clears out conceptual underbrush of what's not, to make way for what is – in this example, "minor evolutionary changes."
In the trendy usage, however, "not so much" is not the setup but the punch line. And the little pause before the "not" is important: Timing is everything.
This "not so much" is often tinged with sarcasm. It can be a gentle-sounding way of delivering a withering critique. "Not so much" is an understated way of saying the diner, for instance, has gone "not at all" upscale. In this sense, "not so much" is a cousin of the "not" construction in wide use some years back: "Yeah, Ma, I'll go with you and Dad to Aunt Tillie's on Sunday and have fun. Not."
To which the parental response, in some families, might be, "So, nu?" Which the aggrieved teen would understand as shorthand for "What are you thinking? That we're going to let you go to the mall? Hang around here playing video games?"
If "not so much" can sweep away all of someone's pretensions in three little syllables, and "not" can evoke all the tedious Sundays ever spent at Tillie's, then the semantic freight is packed into "nu" as tightly as clowns into a car at the circus.
This "nu?" can take the place of an entire conversation, especially among old friends or longtime co-workers. It's one of many bits of Yiddish that have become part of colloquial American English.
Ever since I first heard of "nu," I've wondered whether there was a connection between this inquiring monosyllable and a bit of Berlitz Russian I've had in my ear since my Doctor Zhivago phase when I was a teenager: "Nu, nam pora idti" – Englished as "Well, it's time for us to go."
Since Yiddish is largely German but with a significant dollop of Slavic, it seemed not implausible that "nu" came from Russian or Ukrainian. When I checked it with Jeremy Dauber, associate professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, he endorsed my speculation as "entirely on the mark."
He noted that the Jews didn't move into Russia until the 16th century, and that he hasn't encountered "nu" – which he calls "an all-purpose nonword" – in Yiddish texts predating that migration.
It's interesting how these utterances become an essential part of everyday speech and have their equivalents from one language to another – even though "nu" is equivalent to "well" only in the sense that pumpernickel is equivalent to Wonder Bread.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.