Sunday, December 01, 2019

nebech and navoch

A reader asked if there was any connection between the Yiddish word nebech, meaning "an unfortunate person" (also used as an interjection expressing pity - "oy, nebech") and the similar sounding Hebrew word נבוך navoch, meaning "confused, bewildered, perplexed."

Bottom line - no. But let's look at the etymology of each.

The Yiddish nebech (which later morphed into the English "nebbish"), derives from the Czech word nebohý meaning "unhappy." That word can be broken down into two parts. The first part, ne, is ultimately cognate with the English words "no" and "not."

The second part comes from an earlier Slavic root *bogu, meaning "fortunate." It is said to go back to an Indo-European root, *bhag, meaning "to share out, apportion." The development seems to be that someone who "received a share" is fortunate and happy (but not the nebech). It has some interesting cognates in English, like the words baksheesh (a bribe, also used in Hebrew) and pagoda.

So while some Yiddish words have Hebrew origins, this isn't one of them.

Now let's discuss navoch. It is a biblical word (for example Pharaoh said the Israelites were confused - nevuchim נבוכים - at the sea in Shemot 14:3). And the Hebrew title of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed is Moreh Nevuchim מורה נבוכים.

Navoch's initial letter of nun isn't radical, and so Klein says it derives from the root בוך - meaning to be confused or perplexed. The hifil form of that root is מביך, and so a matzav mevich מצב מביך is an embarrassing situation.

Klein adds that roots that may be related to בוך are אבך (to rise or roll up, like with smoke or dust) and הפך - "to turn, turn over."

So as we've seen these are two unrelated roots. If you look online, you'll see that some people do insist that nebech does derive from navoch. I think one reason for that confusion is how nebech is spelled in Modern Hebrew. In Yiddish it was spelled נעבעך which doesn't look too similar to navoch. But when the word entered Hebrew slang, it was streamlined to נבך which does look a lot like navoch.  I can see how such an unfortunate word can lead to confusion...

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