• nebbish •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A wuss, a milquetoast; a meek, timid simpleton, usually a whiner.
Notes: Today's Good Word is another contribution to English by Yiddish. Very little has been attempted in terms of derivation, 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: "The nebbish serves her husband 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 the Slavic root bog- "god, 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 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 it today's Good Word.)
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