The word origins we encounter on this blog are compelling for a variety of reasons, I think. Oftentimes, an etymology takes us to some surprising places, like candy. Other times, it tells a fascinating story, such as turkey. With a word like new, though, I am struck by the word’s sheer durability. So, to bring in this New Year, let’s take etymological stock of new, which, as we will see, is anything but.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root behind the English new is *néwos. It means–you guessed it–”new.”
This root has done very well for itself over time and across the Indo-European languages. We have evidence for it in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. We have evidence for it across Germanic, Celtic, and Baltic languages. The root turns up, too, in Avestan, Hittite, and Tocharian A and B. If I’m not mistaken, this means there are cognates for new in all major Indo-European daughter language groups except Albanian and Armenian. (These latter two language groups were so influenced by surrounding languages that reconstruction in them is very difficult, notes the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.)
Apparently, there was no reason to invent a new wheel.
The Latin for new is novus, which stays fresh in words like innovate, novel, novice, novocain, renovate, and supernova. In Greek, we have néos, which you may recognize in the prefix neo-, seen in neolithic, neologism, neon, and neophyte. More directly, the English new is owed to the Old English nīwe, also recorded as nēowe and nīowe. Displaying a great deal of vowel change and complexity, the word comes from the Proto-Germanic *neuja- or *neujaz. From Newfoundland to newfangled, New Age to New Deal, and new man to the news, new has indeed served English long and served it well.
But why has new been so sturdy? A different question might be instructive: What’s new? How would you define it? Oxford Dictionaries offers phrases such as “discovered recently” or “not existing before.” Merriam-Webster provides “not old” and “recently born, built, or created.” Dictionary.com puts forth “having but lately come.” It’s really difficult to define new without quickly resorting to tautology or self-relfexivity.
But one word that these dictionaries bring forth in their noble efforts to define new is now–which, it turns out, is etymologically related. Etymologists take now back to the Proto-Indo-European *nu-, which they link to and see as a source of *newos. Etymologically speaking, something now is very much something new. Which makes sense. Nothing, then something. One way, then another. Nothing happening, suddenly something happening.
New, now–words, so seemingly unchanged in sound and sense, marking change.
New, now–there’s a carpe diem to fuel your New Year’s resolution, tucked away in an etymology, of all places.
Happy (Gregorian calendar) New Year!