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shameless pleading





Nebby / Nibby

None of your beeswax.

Dear Word Detective: Here in Western Pennsylvania, we use the word “nebby” to describe a person who pokes his nose into someone else’s business. An in-law from Central Pennsylvania uses the word “nibby,” and another from Eastern PA never heard either term. Can you tell us how those words came to be? Thank you, in advance, for the information. — Amy C. Chismar.

Ah, yes, Pennsylvania, lovely state. I’ve driven through there many times on my way to New York City. But I’m surprised to hear that you actually live there, because we were warned by people in Ohio to stick to the interstate and to drive as fast as possible. Something about zombies? In any case, I’ve always wondered, since Pennsylvania was named after William Penn and supposedly means “Penn’s Woods,” why there isn’t an apostrophe and another “s” in there (Penn’ssylvania). I think it’s worth considering. But I may be wrong. Never mind.

Onward. When I first read your question, I immediately wondered if “nebby” might be connected to “nebbish,” meaning “an ineffectual, awkward and insignificant person” (from the Yiddish exclamation “nebech” or “nebesh,” meaning “Poor thing!”). Think Woody Allen in his first few films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, etc.). Since the hallmark of a true nebbish is social cluelessness, it seemed possible that one of the nebbish’s most annoying characteristics, butting into other people’s conversations, might have spawned “nebby.”

As it happens, however (that’s columnist-speak for “I was wrong”), “nebby” has no apparent connection with “nebbish.” The adjective “nebby” meaning “snoopy” is a classic Pittsburghism (like “jumbo” for bologna) common in Western Pennsylvania but almost unknown in the rest of the US. The form “nibby” and the related noun forms “neb-nose” and “nib-nose” (meaning an inquisitive person) are apparently a bit more widespread within Pennsylvania, but it’s not surprising that someone from Eastern PA wouldn’t have heard the term.

Anyplace that could come up with “jumbo” for bologna is clearly the birthplace of strange slang, so it’s tempting to chalk “nebby” up to the Pittsburgh water supply, but the story of “nebby” and its variants actually predates the European colonization of North America. It turns out that “neb” is a regional term in Northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland for “beak” or “nose,” derived from an old Germanic root and dating back to Old English. A modified form of the same word is our modern “nib” for the beak-like point of a fountain pen. As a verb meaning “to pry into the affairs of others” (i.e., to be “nosy”), “neb” first appeared in the 19th century. As of now, oddly enough, the only two places on earth where you’re likely to hear “neb,” “nebby” and the like are Pittsburgh and Northern England. I figure it’s a zombie thing.

36 comments to Nebby / Nibby

  • osiris

    My grandmother used the word “neb” as a verb. “Neb out”, she’d say sweetly. She grew up in Kentucky (probably a Pittsburgh connection somewhere) and moved to the Southwest in the ’30s, dragging many such verbal oddments with her.

    This site is excellent, by the way.

  • terrymac

    I was born and raised in the ‘Burgh — one of the few towns to use an “h” after “burg” – where “neb” and “redd up your room” and “gum bands” are common usage.

    One theory I’ve heard is that steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, a Scot, may have inspired some of our regional slang, whether directly or via the importation of other Scots.

  • dan

    Im from Northern England, Newcastle Upon Tyne and was laughing earlier today thinking of some words in our dialect: Geordie. Just so you know, we use nebby here and its interesting to find that it seems to have lived on in another part of the world in a state in the US.

  • Joseph

    Thanks for digging this out for us. A friend and I were just discussing these Pittsburgh terms and I too was initially drawn to “nebbish” thinking there was some antiquated meaning associated with the word. Very enlightening, indeed. BTW: It’s no wonder the residents of Ohio warned you to stay on the highway. In Pennsylvania, we consider their driving habits as extremely hazardous and dimwitted. So I suppose many of them get into accidents and thus word got back to the homeland that driving though western PA might be dangerous. It’s really the hills of course. Our roads are often narrow and winding and over the years we’ve developed a certain set of assumptions that flatlanders might not understand.

  • Tom

    Bologna is one of the most amazing places in Italy!

  • tawnya

    I am from Pittsburgh and now live in Ohio..i always use the word “nebby” and NO ONE in this state has ever heard that word! I thought I was losing my noodle! This morning I mentioned “corning” that we do on Halloween, to my man..again..another term Ohioans never heard?? Am I from Mars? I type in nebby and POOF! Its a Pittsburg word!lol we have our own lingo! But proud of it!

  • Jeff

    For additional info, here in Western PA some people will refer to the worst of the worst of nosy people as “neb-sh*ts”, singular is “neb-sh*t”. In case you can’t figure it out, you put an “i” in for the “*”.

  • Laura

    My family moved to Hartford City, Indiana. I soon heard the word “nibby” being used and had to ask for its definition. I was told that it meant “nosey”. I have lived in other communities in Indiana, Illinois and Kansas, and had never heard the word.

  • Just had this mentioned on KDKA in pittsburgh, thats how I found it.

  • I,too,grew up hearing my mother(who was from RI) use the term neb-nose–meaning a busybody. I’m trying to find out the date it was first used as I’d like to use it in an upcoming novel of mine. If anyone can help me with the actual original date it was first used I’d be most appreciative. Thanks

  • Karen

    My Philadelphia grandmother used to call people nebby noses, but my Pittsburgh grandmother didn’t. However, the Philly grandma was married to a Liverpudlian – could she have picked it up from him, I wonder?

    @Bev Lewis, I’m probably too late for you on this, but here’s a website that lists early usages of it.

  • Theresa

    My father used the word Nebby to describe someone who was picky with their food. I grew up in the countryside in Co.Monaghan, Ireland.

  • Elizabeth

    I am from Central Indiana and grew up hearing my family use nibby. I just used it tonight with my kids (in TX) and found that my husband and none of my 4 kids had ever heard it.

  • Pokey

    I am in debate with my son about the origins of this word, and was raised in the Pacific NW of this country, and never heard “being a nib-nose” anywhere but here in Western PA. I used to notice it when I first moved here, and also the “you’uns” used to bug me, too.

  • EBS

    I was born in Sumter, S. C. in 1943. “Nebby nose” was commonly used in our town in that WWII era. It was not cool to be told that you were a “nebby nose”. I just remembered it for the first time in my adult life, last night. My wife grew up 50 miles west in an area rich in Swiss-German ancestry since colonial times, and she says that she never heard that term. I just called my sister who well remembers having been known as a “nubby nose”. What it meant in our culture seemed to largely apply to children who couldn’t resist looking in drawers, boxes, or closets when visiting someone else’s home (a particular form of sticking ones’ nose into another’s stuff or business).

  • Pat

    Southern NJ born and raised, lived here all my 51 years and I and many others I know use the word nibby. Absolutely no connection in my family to the Pittsburgh area, although we do have English/Scottish/Irish ancestry, but that goes back to the early 1700s. Interesting word, thanks for the info on it!

  • Mary

    I grew up in southern New Jersey (Cumberland County) and nibby was commonly used there.

  • Laura

    The word also shows up in the writing of Ann Cleeves in the Vera mysteries.

  • Mary

    The nuns used the term “Nebby” with us children in the 50’s. This was in California, but the nuns were from Pittsburgh.

  • Stacey

    I’m from north central West Virginia (probably 2-2.5 hrs south of Pittsburgh), and grew up saying “nibby”. My grandmother and mother referred to nibby folks as being a “nib s**”. :) I was called this more than once growing up! My Philly born husband found the word quite amusing – It wasn’t until a few years into our marriage I realized this wasn’t a commonly used term.

  • Kevin

    Ha, glad to see someone else from South Jersey. I am from South Jersey, Salem. The phrases to nib, nibby, nibby nose , nibsh*t and various versions have the meaning that a person is always into someone else’s business.

  • John

    Native of Pittsburgh and of mostly Scottish descent. A reading of the history of the early settlement of Western Pennsylvania shows that the majority of the first settlers were Scottish, Presbyterian as well. (Most of the colleges and universities in Western PA were established by this group in order to provide training for clergy). So there is much early Scottish influence here including the spelling of Pittsburgh (which would have been pronounced Pitts-Boro as in Edinburgh capital of Scotland or Edinboro University). Undoubtedly, later German immigration influenced the pronunciation to Burg (and for a time, the actual spelling to match the pronunciation).

  • Mark

    People dont realize, western PA was built by Celtic people, both Scott and Irish. Later, they were squeezed out of the area, and just followed the mountain range south.

  • Linda Wilson

    Nib nose and nubby are very commonly used in WV/the mid-Ohio Valley as well. (About 2 hrs south of Pittsburgh.)

  • Richard Miller

    I first heard this term from a friend who was born in western Pennsylvania, so no surprise there. I was born in the eastern part of the state and never heard it before – no surprise there either. As for living in Pennsylvania, as James Carville once said, “well, between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, you’ve basically got Alabama.” I think he was talking about the vote, but the analogy works for a lot of things, I’m finding out.

  • Mark Cousins

    I’m from Newcastle in Northern England and neb is used for nose. Hence nebby is someone who is nosey.

  • Suzanne

    I grew up in northwest Ohio and my mom was from central Indiana. We used nibby and nib nose and also nib-nosing as a verb. I still use it and my kids know what it means.

  • Melanie Olivas

    As kids, we were called “neb-sh*ts” by adults that caught us “nebbing around” other people’s things!!!! Never heard anyone say it other than my family.

  • Melanie Olivas

    BTW….my family was from Alexandria, Indiana with some roots from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

  • Timothy Stever

    Grew up in central PA, first heard “nebby” in Carlisle, a little east of center. It was clearly nebby and not “nibby”. I had to ask what it meant. Moved to Pittsburgh in the late 80’s and didn’t have to ask when I heard it there!

  • Khem

    I grew up in Bradford County PA (Northeastern border next to NY). The farm folks referred to nosy people as being “nebby” and my mother picked that up rather quickly after we moved there, as she used to refer to the ducks and chickens as “nebby” when they flocked up to the house, standing by the front porch, stretching their necks as if looking for us to come out and give them a handout. (Our chickens were all treated as pets).

  • Lisa Busch

    This discussion is a fabulous etymological study of nib/nibby/neb/nebby/nib-nose and my favorite nib-sh– (I’d forgotten that one) in the US. My family is from Guernsey Co, Ohio and my sister, cousin and I were talking a few years after college and realized we’d all had the exact same experience when we told someone they were nibby in college. People thought we were nuts – never heard of the word.
    Now that I am deeply in to our genealogy, all of the above information made perfect sense. Our Leeper ancestors were the ones John (2018) and Mark (2019) referenced. Nearly all of Liberty Township, Guesrney Co. Ohio was settled by the Scots-Irish from Co. Antrim and Co. Down. The Leepers settled first in western PA and came west to Ohio when the president started offering land patents for 80 acres at $1.25 per. It was a good deal.
    I suspect that many of the folks all over the country who have had similar experiences with the word come from pockets of Scots-Irish ancestry – that Celtic connection with the word nose. Incidentally, in Scotland a nibby is a hooked staff used in shepherding. Could be some connection to that too – shape of nose or hooking it into someone else’s business.
    Thanks for the stories. I hope people keep them coming!

  • Michael Minor

    My wife who just passed away at 77 grew up in South Charleston, WV. She often used the word “nibby.” When we first met, I told her that is was not a real word. After years of hearing her use other words that I had never heard, I finally did some research in an Elizabethan English dictionary. Nibby and all of the other words that were new to me but were well used by my wife seem to have grown out of Scots, Irish, English dialects that were preserved longer in Appalachian Mountain areas before satellite TV and radio signals penetrated the mountains and caused archaic words to be lost to the “standardization” of American English.

  • Dori

    I grew up in southern NJ (Vineland, Cumberland County). My mother would always tell us to ‘stop being such a nibby-nose’. I totally forgot until I ran across this article.

  • Carma

    I grew up in Eastern Ohio about 1 1/4 hours SE of Pittsburgh, near Wheeling, WV. Nibby and nib sh** were commonly used in our home. We were Italian and Belarusian immigrants, but I suspect we learned English from the coal miners in the area. Later on I’d say nibby in Columbus OH and friends would ask what I was talking about.

  • MC

    I am from Wheeling, WV. The word “nibby” was very commonly used, along with nib-sh*t. I went to college in Virginia (UVA), and when I used the word “nibby”, I was countered with puzzled looks and told there is no such word. Then several years later I moved to Pittsburgh, where I still live. In Pittsburgh I was introduced to the term “Nebby”, which I had never heard of, even though Pittsburgh is about 75 min from Wheeling. Of course when I grew up Pittsburgh was a long way off. Pittsburgh people didn’t go to Wheeling, and vice versa. I quickly learned that “nebby” and “nibby” were the same things. I thought maybe they were Yiddish words, and never considered a Scottish origin. I am glad I decided to look it up online (another thing we would never have dreamed of doing when I grew up!)

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