The word comes from Old Englishhnesce meaning feeble, weak, or infirm and is a cognate with the 16th century Dutch word nesch typically meaning damp or foolish. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that some etymologists have suggested a connection with Old High German nasc, meaning 'to eat dainty food or delicacies' (the origin of the word nosh), but it dismisses this connection as "unlikely".
Nesh was added, in 2011, to the British Library 'wordbank', a project to preserve regional dialect words and phrases.
This word has been used in both literature and films where other terms have not been available to convey the particular meaning. Despite being considered a dialect word, and somewhat archaic, writers have periodically turned to it. In addition to its appearance in fiction, in the 19th century it was used in official reports as a general term for susceptibility to cold.
"It seemeth for love his herte is tender and neshe."
The earliest traceable use in modern English, in literature, was in Mary Barton, written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848. Gaskell's style is notable for dignifying the use of local dialect words by putting them into the voice of her characters, and of the narrator. It was also used in Gaskell's The Manchester Marriage, written in 1858.
"Now, I'm not above being nesh for other folks myself. I can stand a good blow, and never change colour; but, set me in the operating-room in the Infirmary, and I turn as sick as a girl."
"At Mrs Wilson's death, Norah came back to them, as nurse to the newly-born little Edwin; into which post she was not installed without a pretty strong oration on the part of the proud and happy father; who declared that if he found out that Norah ever tried to screen the boy by a falsehood, or to make him nesh either in body or mind, she should go that very day."
In 1885 nesh formed a quarter of a curious monograph entitled Four dialect words, clem, lake, nesh, and oss, their modern dialectal range, meanings, pronunciation, etymology, and early or literary use written by Thomas Hallam.
"Whenever she and her husband came to a puddle in their walks together he'd take her up like a half-penny doll and put her over without dirting her a speck. And if he keeps the daughter so long at boarding-school, he'll make her as nesh as her mother was."
From the background slowly approached a slender man with a grey moustache and large patches on his trousers.
'You've got'im back 'gain, ah see,' he said to his daughter-in-law. His wife explained how I had found Joey.
'Ah,' went on the grey man. 'It wor our Alfred scared him off, back your life. He must'a flyed ower t'valley. Tha ma' thank thy stars as 'e wor fun, Maggie. 'E'd a bin froze. They a bit nesh, you know,' he concluded to me.
'They are,' I answered. 'This isn't their country.'
The word also appears in the fourth line of Lawrence's "The Risen Lord" (1929):
Usage continued to be fairly local until the word reached an international audience in the film The Full Monty. This was shot during 1997 on location in Sheffield. In this film nesh was used in the context of feeling cold when others don't.
Since the appearance in the film the word, used for lacking courage, has occurred in the national press.
Nowadays, it is considered to be a gently derogatory comment, that can be used to a friend. An example might be 'Why are you wearing a coat? That's a bit nesh, isn't it?'.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists several shades of meaning, some of which are obsolete. Those still in use, include:
Soft in texture or consistency; yielding easily to pressure or force. In later use chiefly: tender, succulent, juicy. For example, "It is hoped that the report will have a wide circulation as a guideline to asking sharp and pertinent questions that strip away the nish outer flesh and get right to the bone of the problem."
Lacking courage, spirit, or energy; timid, faint-hearted; lazy, negligent. For example: "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.]."
Delicate, weak, sickly, feeble; unable to endure fatigue, etc.; susceptible (to cold, etc.). For example: "A delicate, easily affected child, who therefore needs more than ordinary care, is said by old people to be nash."
^OED: 1879 G. F. JACKSON Shropshire Word-bk. s.v., 'Er's a nesh piece, 'er dunna do above 'afe a day's work. Given under Sense 2: "Lacking courage, spirit, or energy; timid, faint-hearted; lazy, negligent. Now Eng. regional, chiefly north. rare."