A Nebbish Is Born

Nerdy Noun Comes From Ultra-Versatile Yiddish Word

By Philologos

Published January 20, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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I say “reasonably accurate” because nebekh, used as an adverb, has an emotional quality that “unfortunately” doesn’t. If I say, “Unfortunately, she broke her leg,” I’m saying that, all things considered, it’s not good to break your leg. If I say, “Zi hot gebrokhn a fus, nebekh,” I’m in addition expressing sympathy for the leg breaker. Nebekh is Janus-faced: It points both to an unfortunate person or event and to the distress this causes the speaker. (Actually, English once had a fairly exact equivalent of nebekh in the word “alas,” which has become semi-archaic. While one can still use it in writing, it has come to sound — alas! — precious or affected in speech.)

To go on to Mr. Schranz’s second question: Yes, “nebbish” is definitely an Americanized version of nebekh when used as a noun — a version that, to quote the inimitable Leo Rosten, is designed for speakers who have trouble clearing their throats. The word has been around in English for a long time. I’ve translated nebekh as “a nothing,” and my Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines “nebbish” as “a pitifully ineffectual person; a nobody,” but perhaps the best definition is Bud Schulberg’s in his 1941 novel about a young Jew on the make in Hollywood, “What Makes Sammy Run?” “A nebbish person,” Schulberg writes there, “is not exactly an incompetent, a dope, or a weakling. He is simply the one in the crowd that you always forget to introduce.”

If there is a slight difference of nuance between the noun nebekh and “nebbish,” it is a bit like the difference between the adverb nebekh and “unfortunately.” There is a coldness, even a sneer, in “nebbish”; the nebbish’s insignificance leaves one indifferent or contemptuous. There is a heartthrob of pity in nebekh; there but for the grace of God go we. And you can make the throb beat more strongly with the diminutive nebekhl, in which there is even a measure of affection.

Nebekh is definitely Slavic in origin, although whether it derives from Polish nieboga, “poor thing,” medieval Czech nebohy (in modern Czech one says nebożák), whose meaning is similar, or another Slavic language is a subject of controversy among etymologists. It’s a controversy with ramifications, since it bears on the question of what Yiddish’s route of dissemination in Slavic-speaking Eastern Europe may have been, but it’s not one that there’s space for here. Some other time.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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