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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”.

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Page created 18 Dec 1999