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.