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What is the etymology of Narr? Duden says it is unclear. Could it be related to the Hebrew נער (na'ár) boy, youth via Yiddish?

6 Answers 6

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This is an interesting suggestion. The problem is that the word exists already in Old High German (narro) in the 8th century. This is too early for a borrowing from Yiddish.

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  • Interesting. Can you explain why the 8th century is too early? Commented May 10 at 17:47
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    @userunknown: Because Yiddish didn't exist in the 8th century. Yiddish begun to split off from German 300 years later, in 11th century. Commented May 11 at 5:41
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Possibly, but very unlikely.

Even if the ethymology of Narr is unclear, there are several (unproven) theories, Hebrew is none of them:

  • Possibly from Latin nario (to argue, to mock so.) or french narguer (to sneer)
  • Possibly same root as the German Narbe (scar), meaning "crippled"
  • Possibly same root as German nörgeln (grumble)
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  • Grimm also adds the nice (disputed) meaning of Nasenrümpfer ('turning up one's nose').
    – guidot
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 9:54
  • @guidot That's the Latin nario.
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 10:20
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    Magst Du vielleicht noch dazu schreiben, woher diese Theorien stammen?
    – Arsak
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 14:46
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According to Max Weinreich (History of the Yiddish Language 2, pg. 667) the word nar (נאַר‎) comes from the Germanic narre, meaning "to fool" or "to trick."

The association of נאַר‎ with the Semitic נַעַר (naʕar [though in mideval Europe, nar], meaning "young man") is a false etymology, but is widespread, especially due to the Semitic plural נאַראָנים‎ (naronim, and not the expected naronen, nars, etc.) In fact, in older literature the plural was often written as if it were a Semitic נערנים (ibid, in a note to page 621). There is also a humourous saying that "every Samuel is a fool" based on 1 Samuel 2:16, beginning with "...וְהַנַּעַר שְׁמוּאֵל" (and the youth Samuel...).

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  • But that leaves us with the question where the verb originates from.
    – RHa
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:29
  • @rha which verb? The noun from Old and Middle German?
    – user36833
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 20:32
  • The mentioned Germanic "narre". German has "narren", but I would have thought that it is derived from the noun, not vice versa.
    – RHa
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 6:58
  • @rha I am not sure where the Germanic root came from but what is clear is that it's not Semitic.
    – user36833
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 13:32
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I'd like to suggest another possibility, based on the work of Theo Vennemann of the University of Munich as presented by John McWhorter in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, that it is a direct borrowing from Phoenician - essentially the same language as Hebrew and Ugaritic.

Compare Ugaritic 𐎐𐎓𐎗 (nʿr, “boy, servant boy”)

נַעַר • (ná'ar) m (plural indefinite נְעָרִים‎, feminine counterpart נַעֲרָה‎) [pattern: קֶטֶל]

(biblical) non-infant child (biblical) boy, physically able young man (modern) youth, adolescent

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    Vennemann ist zwar ein anerkannter Linguist, aber seine Theorien bezüglich semitischer und "atlantischer" Einflüsse auf die germanischen Sprachen haben nur wenig Zustimung erfahren. Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 11:42
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Why can't the word be derived not from the later Yiddish but from the earlier Hebrew since Jews settled in the Rhineland as they travelled alongside Roman conquerors. The Hebrew word נער (pronounced as NAR) means not only youth, but 'shaking off' of the shackles of adult imposed structures which when done improperly will appear as 'Narrisch'....Note: this youthful and seemingly unwise shaking off of structures (which is how Rabbi Samson Hirsch's Etymological Dictionary defines the Hebrew root of Nar) resonates with the youthful but ultimately not very successful and not-productive shaking off which Arabs call Intifada...the impulse toward freedom is pure but this youthful energetic shaking off is countered by a resistance coming from the elders who understand the need for structure and disciplined building of an alternative...just my humble observation

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  • You see, the absence of a proof is not proof for the absence. Just because all sources say "unclear" that doesn't mean you are free to phantasize. There are similar sounding words in Hindi, Chinese and Na-Dené, but that doesn't mean the word might come from any of them.
    – bakunin
    Commented May 10 at 11:42
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According to Kluge ("Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache", 25. Auflage) "Narr" is derived from Middle High German "narre", Old High German "narro" and the word is German only and its origins unclear.

Kluge (or, rather, his successor Elmar Seebold) gives some secondary sources, among them:

  • A. von Blumenthal, Hesych-Studien, Stuttgart, 1930

  • Ch. M. Puchta-Mähl, Wan es zu ring umb uns beschait, Heidelberg, 1986

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  • I really wonder how quoting a standard dictionary on german etymology causes a downvote.
    – bakunin
    Commented May 12 at 15:10

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