According to Phrase Finder, the origin of the famous proverb “no news is good news”:

The earliest version of this familiar saying was attributed to the English King James I, who wrote in 1616, 'No newis is bettir than evill newis.'

but they add that:

Virtually the modern saying appeared some years later in James Howell's 'Familiar Letters' (c. 1645) with the line, 'I am of the Italians mind that said, no news, good news'." From "Wise Words and Wives'.

According to BookBrowse.com, the Italian expression which James Howell referred to was “nulla nuova, buona nuova”:

The first recorded use of this exact expression in English is by James Howell in 1640, who wrote, "I am of the Italians' mind that said, 'Nulla nuova, buona nuova'.

Italian sources say that the expression “nulla/nessuna nuova, buona nuova” (and all its dialectal variances) derives from the Latin saying “nulla nova, bona nova”.

I could not find other evidence on James Howell in that respect, but I found a 1645 quotation of the exact saying from:

Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae: The Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majestie:

... and yet I cannot but find a fault of omission in most of thy latter " dispatches, there being nothing in' them concerning thy health. For though I confesse , that in this no news is good news, yet I am not so satisfied without a more perfect assurance ; I hope thou wilt ...

Ngram appears to suggest a consistent increase in usage of the proverb only from the early 19th century.


Is there actual evidence that James Howell really contributed to the usage of the proverb in England drawing on the Italian version, (probably Florentine at that time)?

Or was it just a direct English translation from Latin (quite still in vogue in England at that time) to which probably referred King James I?

  • 3
    It seems illogical to expect that the sentiment of such a simple expression would have a single origin.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 5, 2018 at 22:16
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    Of minor interest: a 1650 edition of Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae gives the date of Charles's letter to the queen as March 20, 1642 (rather than March 20, 1645).
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 27, 2018 at 17:58
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    buon nova isn't Latin [fixed], but why do you think that this would have a specific answer in this way? Mr Howell is very openly drawing his use from Italian, whereas there's no claim that he's actually the earliest citation and others would've been drawing from Latin (where, for what it's worth, the saying makes more sense: the grammar permits skipping the copula and using the exact same word to capture the different senses of no new [things] [is] good new [s]).
    – lly
    Aug 28, 2018 at 10:11
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    @lly - sorry, I fixed the Latin version. Well, the expression found its way into English somehow. I suspect it was directly from Latin. The “Italian” reference” appears to be a one-off instance. But the same saying was present also in French. Maybe someone can offer more evidence on this.
    – user 66974
    Aug 28, 2018 at 10:18
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    @user070221, the question promotion was my pleasure. And so the bounty was not wasted, it merely had a negative result. It is a surprise nobody stepped up, although the best of my research didn't produce much in the way of an answer: OED research suggests (but only suggests) the original was the divergent Portugese version, but searches for the Portugese were not productive; searches for nulla nova and nulla novae, etc. (with res, rei forms) in a Latin original likewise. The letter from Howell...
    – JEL
    Aug 31, 2018 at 20:38

1 Answer 1


Someone has to venture an answer, even if it is sketchy. There is circumstantial evidence.


First, the proverb also exists in French

Pas de nouvelles bonnes, bonnes nouvelles.

Very little is readily available on its origin, except a (non-scholarly) page that indicates, too, its Italian origin. So let's pursue that trail.

Italian: Proper Latin Form

Yes, the proverb is referred to in Italian but, interestingly, not in the form generally offered in English grammars:

Nulla nuova, buona nuova.

In Italian, it is used in its authentic Latin form.

Nulla nova, bona nova.

Indeed, the Latin proverb was sufficiently in common use in Rome, to have been carved on some monument (if someone cared to obtain the source indicated, we would know more about it).

Italian: Problem with the form quoted in English books

Problem: nulla nuova is not considered correct Italian, since the Latin meaning of "nullus" (no, as is no news) was not carried forward into modern Italian! The meaning of nullo, is rather as "void, invalid, null".

Questa decisione è nulla.

"This decision is void".

And that explains why a high-school grammar book of 1887, Regole ed esercizi di grammatica italiana per le scuole secondarie wanted to warn high-school pupils (p. 87) that nullo:

per gli antichi, valse nessuno : nullo male fece (nessun male fece); ma ora vive, in tal senso, solo nel proverbio: « nulla nova, bona nova »;


meant, for the Ancients, none/no one: he did no [nullo] harm; but today it persists only in the proverb: "nulla nova, bona nova"

And if the proverb was mentioned in a high school textbook, it also suggests that:

a. this issue of "nullo" versus "nullus" was a common grammar issue in standard Italian [1887: a few decades after the unification of the country, when there was a strong drive to impose its use].

b. the Latin form was in wide use and was the proper one.

So why could English educated people refer to, in the seventeenth century:

nulla nuova, buona nuova

as allegedly "Italian"?

The best explanation seems phonology and more precisely vowel breaking. (Florentine) Italian tended to break a consonnant + 'o' like nova/bona into diphtongs: nuova, buona.

Hence, presumably, this odd Italian form of the proverb was a direct transposition ("Italianization") of the Latin form, in a process akin to folk etymology. How much this folk etymology owes to Italian speakers (i.e. this Italianized form was indeed common at some point, before being ruled out as "incorrect"), or how much it was inflated by the perception of educated foreigners, would be a subject of further study...

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