“He is a mild-mannered nebbish with bad hair, bad clothes, bad glasses …” (Deborah Ross in The Spectator)

Here’s a word derived directly from Yiddish, that I had been aware of but rarely encountered in use. I’ve stumbled on it several times recently and it emerges into view as a fully accredited noun (and, as The Chambers Dictionary records, also an adjective). The actual Yiddish word is “nebekh”, and means “a wretch”, an ineffectual or inadequate person. The word seems to have come to England in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, among several other products of the huge migrations of those years. Another of those products is, interestingly, fish and chips, which few people realise is a Jewish dish. We may claim the chips are indigenous, but the fish is pescado frito, imported from Spain by Sephardic Jews. 

In support of this assertion, I would refer you to that great recorder of vernacular cuisine, Charles Dickens. In the course of innumerable items of journalism, not to mention his outpouring of some fifteen long novels, Dickens mentions many types of food, and popular delicacies galore, but seems never to have heard of fish and chips, which we now think of as quintessentially English, and particularly local to London – Dickens’s home turf. He died in 1870, by which date Jewish food was no doubt beginning to be known here, but fish and chips was to establish itself as one of the most popular of vernacular dishes only at the end of the century. 

I’m sorry if this disappoints those who build their sense of Englishness – or even Britishness – on a tabulation of staple dishes. But that has surely been a fluctuating yardstick at any period. We, in the age of tandoori chicken and pizza, should be well aware of the influence of fashion in such matters as much as in clothes or popular music. But we can certainly congratulate ourselves on the variety of foodstuffs we consume (I was about to say, tolerate), just as we take pride in the wealth of the language we speak. 

“Nebbish” has a role to play, no doubt, but it suffers from the ambiguity of its “-ish” ending, which sounds like a suffix modifying the “neb” base. “Neb” is an old English word, rarely used now, related to “nib”, meaning “beak” or “bill” and roughly synonymous with “nose”.  “Nebbish” emphatically doesn’t mean “a bit like a nose”. I like Chambers’ definition, which is satisfyingly rude: “A colourless, insignificant, incompetent person, a perpetual victim”. It should surely find itself useful in many contexts. 

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