Jewish Grammar: Nebbish

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I’m not sure how I feel about the recent Jewcy article “Reclaiming the Nebbish,” in which Peter Hyman exhorts us to find our inner “klutzy, bespectacled mother-loving stereotype” of a Jew.

Meaning, I’m not convinced that Jewish men have really transcended this stereotype and passed it on to the gentiles. Hyman provides a handful of good examples of GentileNebs, but not enough MachoJews to convince me. In any case, the article is all in good fun, and more than anything it fixated me on the grammar of the word “nebbish.”

Hyman uses the word “nebbish” as a noun: “At a deeper level, the nebbish represents nothing less than a core aspect of the Jewish identity — a freedom from pretense and an obsessive nerdiness that combines book smarts with a lack of concern for social status.”

But I always assumed “nebbish” was an adjective. Like “skittish” or “squeamish. Or “Jewish” for that matter. I assumed the noun version was “neb” — or something like that.

But, alas, I was wrong. The etymology of the word: Nebbish is from Yiddish nebekh, “poor, unfortunate,” of Slavic origin.

Posted on March 14, 2007

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