The Negative Letter N

"No No Nanette"

Youmans, Caesar, Harbach

The nasal sound of the letter N is similar in pronunciation to the letter M except that it’s the tongue -- rather than the closed lips -- that modulate its humming sound. Even though the N may be related to the letter M, its impact is decidedly different. For there’s a distinct downbeat to the letter, which initializes more negative words than any other letter in the English language and many other languages as well.

Consider the words no, never, none, nein, nyet, nope, not, nil, nothing, nowhere, naught, nada, nai (Japanese) and nix – all expressions of nonentities, and adjectives like nasty, naïve, nitwit, nutty, nag, nazi, nerdy, niggle, nausea, nebbish, nefarious, and nuisance. These are only a small fraction of pessimistic words that begin with the N. And then there’s the issue of the N-Word, which has recently become so socially explosive as to be nigh on unutterable. Most negative prefixes also contain an N, like non-event, anti-social, un-happy, and in-sane.

But all is not lost for the letter N, for it does contain a few of the nurturing aspects of its cousin the M. The neven looks like half of an m, and comes somewhat close to representing motherhood in words like nana, naïveté, nanny, natal, nursing, natural, nun, and Nymph -- the spirit that oversees water, trees, and mountains. Its nurturing qualities may explain why N people are high on the list of people in the medical profession.

As an initial letter for a name, the letter N occurs with only 1/6 the frequency as the more maternal letter M, but as is the case with the letter M, twice as many girls' names as boys' begin with the letter N. Its nurturing influence is highlighted in the traditional meaning of Nani (charming), Nannette (gracious), Nigel (gift of God), Nalo (lovable), Naomi (pleasant), Nathan (giver), and Nike (the Greek goddess of victory).