Words Writers Love.

Writers, by and large, love words, so it makes sense to ask them which words they’re particularly fond of, and the Guardian did so; it’s an even more interesting list than you might expect, and it leads off with the wonderful Hilary Mantel, who says, inter alia, “Only recently I learned nesh, which you would be after traipsing: fragile, a bit ill, feeling the cold, generally sorry for yourself.” I was glad to learn it, and it has an interesting history, as revealed by the OED:

Etymology: Cognate with early modern Dutch, Dutch regional (West Flemish) nesch, nisch soft (of eggs), damp, sodden, foolish (16th cent.), Gothic hnasqus soft, tender. A connection with Old High German nascōn and its cognates in sense ‘to eat dainty food or delicacies’ (see nosh v.) has been suggested, but seems unlikely.
The further etymology of the word is unclear: it has been suggested that it is related to Sanskrit kiknasa particles of ground grain (of rice), flesh of rice (represented in only one corrupt late Vedic text, with variants caknasa, cikkasa, in context implying an unattested compound piṣṭa-cikkasa particle of flour, from which some have posited a Sanskrit root cikk– to hurt) and further with Latvian regional knost, knosīt to peck at plumage with the beak, pluck, beat (compare Latvian knosīties to scratch oneself), but the connection between the two is difficult to make, and their joint connection with the Germanic word is not generally accepted.

Now regional.
A. adj.
1. a. Soft in texture or consistency; yielding easily to pressure or force. In later use chiefly: tender, succulent, juicy.
OE (Northumbrian) Lindisf. Gospels: Matt. xi. 8 Mollibus uestiuntur: mið hnescum [OE Rushw. næscum] gerelum gescirped biðon uel sind.
[…]
lOE King Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (Bodl.) xxxiii. 80 Þæt hnesce & flowende wæter.
[…]
?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 995 Bulltedd bræd..wass..smeredd wel wiþþ ele sæw & makedd fatt & nesshe.
[…]
a1475 J. Russell Bk. Nurture 986 in F. J. Furnivall Early Eng. Meals & Manners (1931) 67 Lett hym go to bed but looke it be soote & nesche.
[…]
1678 J. Ray tr. F. Willughby Ornithol. ii. x. 160 Their [sc. turkeys’] young Chickens are very nesh and tender, and not to be reared without great care and attendance.
[…]
1802 T. D. Fosbroke Econ. Monastic Life i. vii, Their feathery leaves where nesh Acacias spread.
[…]
1915 R. C. Thompson Pilgr. Scrip 71 The road from the bridge is like an English lane with blackberry hedgerows..and a nesh track for a morning gallop.
[…]

2. Lacking courage, spirit, or energy; timid, faint-hearted; lazy, negligent. Now Eng. regional, chiefly north. rare.
eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) (1871) lx. 453 Swa he ðone hnescan ðafettere on recceleste ne gebrenge.
[…]
c1300 St. Thomas Becket (Laud) 1589 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 152 For þat þe bischopus bifore me weren to nesche..Þe stude fastore i mot beo.
[…]
▸a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) iv. 3681 (MED), He was to neysshe and sche to hard.
[…]
1841 R. W. Hamilton Nugæ Lit. 354 Nesh is applied to a cowardly, undecided person.
[…]
1995 Guardian 9 Oct. 12 The worst crime was the charge of being ‘nesh’… It was..nesh to..wait for the bus to stop before jumping into the road [etc.].

3. a. Mild, gentle, kind; inclined to pity, mercy, etc. Obs.
eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) (1871) xvii. 126 Sie ðær eac lufu, næs ðeah to hnesce.
[…]
a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) : Prov. (Bodl. 959) xv. 1 A Nesshe [a1425 L.V. soft; L. mollis] answere brekeþ wrathe.
[…]
c1530 Court of Love 1092 It semeth for love his harte is tender nessh.

b. Easily yielding to temptation; inclined to lust or wantonness. Obs.
OE Ælfric Catholic Homilies: 2nd Ser. (Cambr. Gg.3.28) xii. 124 Hnesce on mode to flæsclicum lustum.
[…]
c1275 (▸?a1216) Owl & Nightingale (Calig.) 1387 Wymmon is of neysse [v.r. nesche] fleysse, & fleysses lustes is strong to queysse.
[…]
?a1475 Ludus Coventriae 28 (MED), Oure hap was hard, oure wytt was nesch to paradys whan we were brought.

4. a. Delicate, weak, sickly, feeble; unable to endure fatigue, etc.; susceptible (to cold, etc.).
Now the prevalent sense.

OE Old Eng. Hexateuch: Gen. (Claud.) xxxiii. 13 Ic hæbbe hnesce lytlingas & geeane eawa & gecealfe cy mid me; gyf ic hi to swyðe drife, ealle hi forwurþað.
[…]
a1500 (▸a1375) Octavian (Calig.) 1210 (MED), Wymmen beþ of swych maner, All tendre and nessche.
[…]
1607 E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 377 If the horse be nesh and tender, & so wax lean without any apparant griefe.
[…]
1789 W. Marshall Rural Econ. Glocestershire I. 330 Nesh; the common term, for tender or washy, as spoken of a cow or horse.
[…]
1887 H. Caine Deemster I. vi. 115 Their own little room.., where no fire burned lest they should grow ‘nesh’.
[…]
1984 S. T. Warner One Thing leading to Another (1985) 76 ‘They take looking after. They’re nesh.’ Nesh. Her father’s word, meaning ‘delicate’. The girl looks nesh.

The progression ‘soft’ > ‘timid’ > ‘mild’ > ‘weak’ is a nice illustration of semantic shift, and who can resist Gothic hnasqus?

But all of them are good. It’s interesting that both Andrew O’Hagan and Aminatta Forna mention clart; Forna says:

My great grandmother was an Orcadian and I am told she spoke to me only Orkney when I was a child. According to my mother, I appeared to understand every word she said and spoke to her in Orkney, too. This strikes me as highly likely, in the way that children appear to be born multilingual, to have by an early age acquired a facility in all the languages of the world and in which they are able to make their needs known. Our family on my grandfather’s side came mainly from Aberdeen and spoke Doric. My grandmother, I’m guessing, spoke both Doric and Orkney. I love the Orkney word clart which I expect I heard a good bit. It means covered in or layered, thick with. You might equally say “that child is clart in mud”, as describe a scone as “clart with jam”.

For clart, the OED says (in an 1889 entry) “the origin is unknown.” (We dealt with Doric here.)

Comments

  1. Anna J Peekfrean says:

    “Only recently I learned nesh, which you would be after traipsing: fragile, a bit ill, feeling the cold, generally sorry for yourself.”

    Ooh, is this cognate with nasskalt, how the natives describe the damp, cold weather in Hamburg?

  2. Any chance of a connection between nesh and German nass = wet (or maybe netzen = make wet)?

  3. Two minds with but a single thought! But my German etymdic (Mackensen) says for naß “Herkunft ungeklärt,” and so does the more up-to-date Duden (which spells it nass).

  4. Chris McG says:

    I believe German nass is cognate with Dutch nat (“wet”), whereas nesh is cognate with Dutch nes (“soft, weak”).

  5. Chris McG says:

    Wiktionary takes nass to Proto Germanic *nataz, and nesh to *hnaskuz. Though I don’t know how reliable wiktionary is on this sort of stuff?

  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Couldn’t nat/nass be from the stem found in Latin natare ‘swim, float, flow’, Greek νότιος ‘moist, damp, rainy’, Noteć [river in western Poland]? It may have been borrowed from some IE language which didn’t undergo the Germanic consonant shift (I dunno, maybe continental Celtic or the language of Venedae if it was indeed a separate branch).

  7. Chris McG says:

    (Off-topic: Of the two comments I left before, only the first line or so of each of them seems to be showing. Is that a glitch on my end? I mean, without what I said after it just looks like I’m mostly repeating stuff from the OP…)

  8. Not sure what you’re referring to. I see:

    Chris McG says:
    June 1, 2015 at 10:33 am (Edit)

    I believe German nass is cognate with Dutch nat (“wet”), whereas nesh is cognate with Dutch nes (“soft, weak”).

    Chris McG says:
    June 1, 2015 at 11:07 am (Edit)

    Wiktionary takes nass to Proto Germanic *nataz, and nesh to *hnaskuz. Though I don’t know how reliable wiktionary is on this sort of stuff?

    They’re short comments, but they don’t repeat material from the post. Did you intend to write more?

  9. Chris McG says:

    I thought I had written more – about the different meanings of nes in Dutch in the first comment, and speculating about other possible cognates in the second. But perhaps I imagined it… (In terms of repetition, I was just referring to nes(ch) and its basic definition already being in the OED’s etymology.)

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Wiktionary is generally quite good on such things as far as I can tell.

    Old High German nascōn and its cognates in sense ‘to eat dainty food or delicacies’

    Survives as naschen “to eat sweets in not too large quantities”.

    netzen

    That must be the causative, which would be *natjaną in Proto-Germanic. The */j/ caused the /t/ to lengthen (West Germanic gemination) and also triggered umlaut; then the High German consonant shift turned the long plosive into an affricate.

  11. I don’t know. If you’re a writer, and you make a decision to use a word nobody knows…maybe you’re gaining something (I do think words have a life of their own), but you’re losing something, too, aren’t you?

  12. Survives as naschen “to eat sweets in not too large quantities”

    And as נאשען nashen in Yiddish, and then reborn in Hebrew as לנשנש le-nashnesh, both of similar meaning.

    Quoth AHD:
    nosh (nŏsh) Informal
    n.
    A snack or light meal.
    intr.v. noshed, nosh·ing, nosh·es
    To eat a snack or light meal: noshed on a bagel between classes.
    [Yiddish nash, from nashn, to eat sweets, nibble on, from Middle High German naschen, to nibble, from Old High German hnascōn.]

  13. If you’re a writer, and you make a decision to use a word nobody knows…maybe you’re gaining something (I do think words have a life of their own), but you’re losing something, too, aren’t you?

    Well, every time you do anything at all you’re both gaining something and losing something, so that’s sort of a red herring. And it’s not a matter of words “nobody knows”; different numbers of people know all the words under discussion, and people differ in their desire to learn new words and willingness to enjoy prose with unfamiliar words. One extreme is Finnegans Wake; another is writing everything in Basic English. Most writers work in the middle ground.

  14. I love the Orkney word clart which I expect I heard a good bit. It means covered in or layered, thick with. You might equally say “that child is clart in mud”, as describe a scone as “clart with jam”.

    Compare Scots “clarty”, meaning simply “dirty”.

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