A common mistake among learners of English as a foreign language is to use news in the singular form new as if it were a countable noun, as in ‘I have a good new’ when a singular good thing has happened. However, their mistake is logical really. What doesn’t make much sense is keeping the s in news even when we’re just talking about one thing. After all, we could be talking about just one event or development. So why do we do it?
One striking false etymology suggests that news comes from the points on a compass: north, east, west and south. Firstly, we normally list the cardinal directions in clockwise order: north, east, south, and west. This renders nesw not news. Secondly, the cardinal directions have nothing to do with new information or tidings, semantically. Also, there’s a much simpler and much more credible etymology: it comes from new.
Nowadays, we use new as an adjective but in Old English new was also a noun, referring to anything which was original or novel. The first instance of this comes in the singular, countable form in Alfred’s 888 translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:
Wenst þu þæt hit hwæt niwes sie?
(Do you imagine that the new happens for you?)
By at least 1417 the word had come to mean specifically ‘account of an event’ rather than a general novel thing. Yet, although news was becoming the most common form, it was still regarded as a countable noun as late as the 19th century in some cases. For example, in an 1865 letter written in reaction to the assassination of President Lincoln, Queen Victoria wrote:
‘These American news are most dreadful and awful! One never heard of such a thing! I only hope it will not be catching elsewhere.’
Notice how she refers to the event as ‘a thing’ and ‘it’ in the singular but still uses news in the plural, writing ‘these … news’ rather than ‘this news’ as we would today.
Since then, the plural spelling has stuck but news has become an uncountable noun.