Before there was an iPhone before there was a cellphone Bezeq, the Israeli phone company, sold telephones along with their service. Phones complete with handsets that we used to call "receivers." The kind you could slam down if you wanted to hang up on someone.
What was special about Bezeq's phone, though, was that it had a feature I'd never seen before. It came with a button that was a secret weapon. No, it didn't set off an explosion at the other end. Not literally anyway.
When you got a busy signal, you pressed the button and it redialed the number you called over and over again until you finally got through.Bezeq had a name for this sinister device. The button was called "Nudnik." It predated the phone hackers' Demon Dialer of the '80s.
Later, both became obsolete, because when phone companies worldwide, including Bezeq, instituted call waiting and call forwarding, they added a redial feature. To use it, when you call somebody and the phone is busy, you just press flash and then *41. When your victim hangs up, both your phone and his ring. Perhaps out of nostalgia, Israelis call the feature "Nudnik."
"The lexical supermaven Sol Steinmetz," as William Safire called him, defined nudnik in his Meshuggenary:
"A pest or bore. As a child, a nudnik may be tolerated as showing signs of an active intelligence; but when the trait continues into adulthood, everyone's patience frays."
Steinmetz said the word "derived from the same root as noodge, with the addition of the Slavic suffix -nik,meaning follower or practitioner."
I periodically pester colleagues with friendly reminders, and I used to call it nudzhing. I liked the Slavic flavor, and it differentiated it from the English "nudge."
After A.M. Rosenthal, former executive editor of The New York Times, was quoted in an obituary as saying that Arthur O. Sulzberger wasn't a "nudge," William Safire wrote that Rosenthal meant the Yiddish word noodge.
"In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten spells the noun nudzh, pronounced in two syllables, NUD-jeh, to rhyme with 'could ya.' In his 1986 Yiddish and English, Sol Steinmetz derives the noun from the Yiddish verb nudyen, 'to bore, pester,' and cautions, 'It should not be confused with the standard English noun nudge, meaning a slight push.'"
Still, Steinmetz preferred the spelling "nudge." But Safire begged to differ. Actually, it was more than "beg."
"I hate to be a pest, or even an especially pushy pest, but the sound of the u in the Yiddish word is the sound of the oo in oof or look. That is not the sound of the oo in woozy or hooh-boy.
But neither is it the sound of the u in the English nudge, which is uh, close to the neutral sound of the schwa."
(The Oxford English Dictionary defines schwa as "The central vowel sound, typically occurring in weakly stressed syllables…" It says the Etymology is German, but two of OED's references say it comes from the Hebrew shva.)
Safire concluded, "Therefore, I would spell the Yiddish word for 'needling annoyer' noodge, not nudge. Remember: pronounce the oo as in look, not as in fool."
No fool, Safire ran it by Rosenthal, who said: "Yeah, I had to look at that word twice. It's a word you say, not a word you spell."
But since I read Safire's explanation, I started spelling it noodge.
In a more visceral take on noodging, Michael Wex, in Just Say Nu, says that the word means to be a pest and also to be nauseating.
"The Yiddish word nooDOteh means 'nausea' or 'tedium' cause and effect are often hard to separate and the adjective associated with it, NUDneh, means 'nauseating, boring.'
A nudneh person NUDyet he or she bores you, forces you to endure nausea and such a person is called a NUDnik.
English has lost the gut-wrenching physicality that Yiddish ever mindful of its speakers' stomachs never fails to stress; the basic meaning of nudnik, usually translated as 'bore' or 'pest.'"
But a nudnik is so annoying and so boring that he has the emetic power of a dose of ipepac.
Long before Bezeq's Nudnik button, my friend Richie Wald, z"l, was once on the phone with a classic nudnik. These were the days before modular jacks, when phones were hard-connected to a wall box. Richie reached for something . . . stretching a bit too far. Suddenly, the phone went dead. He had pulled the wire out of the wall. He went looking for a screwdriver and painstakingly reconnected the phone.
As it crackled to life, he heard his friend still talking 30 minutes later!
Flabbergasted, Richie asked, "Didn't you notice I wasn't talking?"
"I thought you were agreeing with me!"