The Grammarphobia Blog

When a nudge is a noodge

Q: A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times referred to journalists as “impertinent nudges.” Did the writer confuse “nudges” with the Yiddish “noodges”? Or has the former become an acceptable way to spell the latter?

A: The Times usually spells the word “noodge,” but “nudge” does show up every once in a while, according to our searches of the newspaper’s online archive. Some standard dictionaries include both spellings of the word, which is a noun for a nag or whiner and a verb meaning to pester or complain.

The example you noticed was in an Oct. 21, 2019, Op-Ed column by Michelle Cottle about the questioning of Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff: “Journalists being the impertinent nudges they are, Mr. Mulvaney soon found himself fielding questions about impeachment.”

The paper’s use of the “nudge” spelling for the word of Yiddish origin dates back to the early 1970s: “He’s not a writer, he’s a nudge. On the phone twice a day asking how’s it going!” (“The Literary Cocktail Party,” an essay by William Cole, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 3, 1972).

A quarter-century later, the language writer William Safire criticized the use of the “nudge” spelling in another Times article, arguing that the English term is derived from “a Yiddish word more closely represented as noodge” (On Language, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 9, 1997).

We see no reason why an English word derived from a foreign language has to be spelled or pronounced like its foreign source. However, we’d use the “noodge” spelling to avoid confusion with the much older and more common English word “nudge,” a noun for a light touch or a verb meaning to touch or push.

(The two are pronounced differently. The vowel sound in the Yiddish-derived word, no matter how it’s spelled, is like the one in “foot.” The older English word rhymes with “fudge.”)

Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the Yiddish-derived term, with three spellings given: “noodge,” “nudge,” and the less common “nudz.”

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Collins, and Merriam-Webster give “noodge” as the only spelling. Webster’s New World lists “noodge” as the primary spelling and “nudge” as a slang variant. American Heritage, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), and the subscription-only Merriam-Webster Unabridged list “noodge” and “nudge” as equally common variants, with M-W Unabridged adding “nudz” as a less popular variant.

The earliest examples that we’ve found for the noun as well as the verb are from “The Wife Game” (1963), a short story by Lenore Turovlin. As far as we can tell, the story first appeared in the August 1963 issue of McCall’s magazine. This is from a reprint in the Australian Women’s Weekly, Dec. 4, 1963:

“What’s a noodge, Daddy?” Vicky asked.
“A noodge,” Walt instructed her solemnly, “is one who noodges.”
“If you mean nudge,” I began.
“No. There’s a difference,” Walt said. “A nudge is like a gentle prod, but a noodge keeps it up, on and on and on.”
“A nag,” Bruce supplied.
“Well, sort of,” Walt said, “but with your best interests at heart—and never lets you forget it.”

Those examples for the noun and verb are earlier than the ones in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED says the verb is “implied” by the gerund “noodging” in this citation:

“Most of Malamud’s stories turn about a relationship drawn from Jewish tradition—an ‘unwelcome pairing,’ full of quarrelling, rejection, disputation, pursuit, persistence, and noodging (a sort of dogged wheedling).” From the May 1960 issue of Encounter.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the noun “noodge” as “a person who persistently complains or nags; a pest, a bore,” and the verb as “to pester, to nag at,” or “to whine, to complain persistently.” It describes both as “slang (chiefly U.S.).”

Oxford spells the verb and noun “noodge,” and notes that the “nudge” spelling is “remodelled after” the older English verb “nudge.” It says “noodge” is derived from nudyen, Yiddish for to bore or pester, which in turn comes from similar terms in Polish or Russian.

The dictionary notes an earlier colloquial term for a pest or boor, “nudnik,” which English borrowed from Yiddish in the early 20th century: “He’s a great nudnik (bore), Zili the tailor” (Sholem Aleichem, Fort Wayne [IN] Journal-Gazette, Jan. 16, 1916).

The citation is from “Off for America,” which appeared in various newspapers and magazines a few months before the author died. It’s an authorized English translation by Marion Weinstein of a Yiddish section of Sholem Aleichem’s unfinished last novel, The Adventures of Mottel the Cantor’s Son.

As for the older English word “nudge,” both the verb and noun showed up in writing in the 17th century. The OED says the term is of uncertain origin, but it points readers to nugge, Norwegian for to push or nudge, as a possibility.

The verb came first, and originally meant “to push or prod (a person) gently, esp. with the elbow, for the purpose of attracting attention, etc. Also: to give (a thing, etc.) a slight shove or series of shoves,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Homer’s Odysses, a 1675 translation of the Odyssey by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “When a third part of the night was gone, I nudg’d Ulysses (who did next me lie).”

When the noun “nudge” appeared two decades later, the OED says, it meant “a gentle push or prod, esp. with the elbow, usually intended as a prompt or hint to someone; (also) a slight shove given to an object, esp. to dislodge or free it.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Adventures of Covent-Garden, a 1699 novella by the Irish dramatist and actor George Farquhar: “Peregrine would have answered, but a pluck by the Sleeve obliged him to turn from Selinda to entertain a Lady Mask’d who had given him the Nudg.”

Finally, here’s a more recent example from the Harvard Business Review that uses both “nudges” (prods) and “noodges” (pests):

“Nudges aren’t always perceived as helpful. Regardless of the creator’s intentions, nudges can feel patronizing or subtly manipulative and could backfire if recipients perceive them as noodges, a Yiddish term that means ‘nuisance or pest.’ ” (“How to Overcome Clinicians’ Resistance to Nudges,” May 3, 2019, by Amol S. Navathe, Vivian S. Lee, and Joshua M. Liao.)

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