• nebbish •
Pronunciation: ne-bish • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A wuss, a milquetoast, a meek, timid simpleton, and usually a whiner.
Notes: Today's Good Word is another contribution to English by Yiddish. It comes to us with little derivational baggage, though nebbishy and nebbishness pop up from time to time.
In Play: Woody Allen and Rick Moranis play the best known nebbishes in US movies. Nebbishes tend to be meek fumbling characters, constantly flubbing up, like this one: "Luke Worme is such a nebbish he won't eat lobsters for fear they will eat him first." Nebbishes tend to be subservient if not servile: "Mahatma Handh is such a nebbish: he serves his wife breakfast in bed every morning."
Word History: This word comes from Western Yiddish nebesh, a dialectal variant of standard Yiddish nebekh. The word originates in a Slavic language, perhaps Ukrainian nebizh "poor hapless creature" or Czech nebohý "poor, unfortunate". These words are based on a Slavic construction consisting of ne "not" + bog- "rich, fortunate", seen in Russian bog "god" and bogatyi "rich". This root goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root bhag- "share, good fortune, riches" that became phag- "eat" in ancient Greek. We see this root in such borrowings as esophagus and sarcophagus, which meant "flesh-eating" in Greece back when people believed that limestone ate the flesh of the dead. Another related word is baksheesh "a gift or present in return for a favor". It comes from Persian bakhshidan "to give". (We thank Margie Sved for not being a nebbish but suggesting that we make the expression today's Good Word.)