Q From Sue Garlick: Can you suggest the meaning of nebbishy? It was recently used in a review of the film The End of the Affair thus: ‘Sarah’s husband, Henry, who is also Maurice’s acquaintance, is a nebbishy dullard who takes his wife for granted’.
A It’s an adjective formed from one of the most characteristic of Yiddish words. It was originally nebech, a word of Slavic origin, with the stress on the first syllable and the second ending in the guttural ch. In Yiddish it was originally an interjection, roughly meaning “You poor thing!”. Americans had trouble saying this word when it first appeared in the English language at the end of the nineteenth century, and they changed it to nebbish, with nebbishy as the much less common adjective.
A nebbish is an ineffectual man, someone timid, submissive, weak, helpless or hapless, a nonentity. He’s unlucky, but mainly because he’s a loser right through to the core. The word has strong undertones of both pity and contempt. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish (a book I can wholeheartedly recommend if you’re even moderately interested) quotes a Yiddish quip: “When a nebech leaves the room, you feel as though somebody just came in”. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cites a 1941 book: “A nebbish person is not exactly an incompetent, a dope or a weakling. He is simply the one in the crowd that you always forget to introduce”.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!