From Homer to happy hour: the etymology of ‘nudge’

This week, UK government figures are hoping that restricting entry to pubs to the vaccinated will serve as a ‘nudge’ for young people to get the Covid jab

Should entry to pubs and other houses of mirth be restricted to people with vaccine passports? Government figures have argued that this would be a strong “nudge” to youngsters to get jabbed. But why a nudge rather than an incentive, or blackmail?

The origins of the word “nudge” are unclear, possibly from Norwegian nugge, to push, but we know it first appears in English via the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s translations of Homer in 1675: “When a third part of the night was gone, I nudg’d Ulysses (who did next me lie),” says Ulysses himself, cunningly disguised. Thenceforth it could also mean to move gradually, or to remind, but the modern political sense derives from the realm of behavioural economics, as popularised in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2004 book Nudge.

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