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shameless pleading


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.

17 comments to Nebby

  • 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).

  • Mary

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

  • Mary

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

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