nesh

What would you do if you looked down on your page and saw hnecxian looking back up at you?

Would you sneeze? Would you flinch? Would you soften and fade back? Or would you be fascinated by this ink-insect?

You needn’t fear. Although you have just seen it looking back at you, snuffing and snorting and crisp and vexing, whether or not you softened, it has. Hnecxian is the Old English version of the word – in its infinitive verb form. The modern English form, verb, adjective, noun, and adverb, is nesh.

Which is more reminiscent of a bug after it has been squished. Or any other soft and perhaps unwelcome thing.

Which is good. Because that’s the semantic playing field – soaked with the rains of time, a bit of a sticky wicket. It started off as meaning ‘soft’, as in an overripe pear or persimmon, or perhaps a juicy piece of meat. From that it gained a sense of ‘moist’ or ‘damp’ or even ‘chilly’. And then it transferred to the various kinds of human character that can be called the opposite of hard, from pusillanimous to magnanimous. A nesh person may be mild and kind; or easily tempted; or sickly and as physically resilient as a damp square of toilet tissue; or squeamish; or feckless or cowardly. And the verb, not commonly used, can mean ‘soften’ or – as in nesh it – ‘chicken out’.

Not all of these senses are entirely current today. The most common one, the OED tells me, is the ‘weak and delicate’ sense: a person like a petal of an underwatered cut flower, valetudinarian, either born that way or – like this word – once striking and daunting but now stricken and daunted. What has it left to offer you? A bit of nasal at the start – nothing fresh – and some slush at the stop, but lacking the gnathous aggression of gnash and even the optional chop of nosh; just a kind of meh that doesn’t mesh. Like a fruit you poke and then poke right through. (Ugh.)

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