I was reading The New Yorker the other night (the March 25 edition–I’m always a few weeks behind) and came across this description of 1970s punk rock: it was “spare, nervy music created in reaction to the embarrassing excesses of arena rock.”

It reminded my that my friend David Friedman, a massive West Ham supporter, had for years been telling me about the British use of nervy, especially in a sporting context, to mean something similar to what Americans call nervous.  I found this example, which is British in every possible way, in a headline on a website called “This Is Staffordhire”: “It’s getting nervy for all as Stoke City enter relegation battle.”

We use nervy, too, but here it’s traditionally meant something between audacious and impudent. The OED cites a 1991 short story by Joyce Carol Oates: “I was nervy enough to ask Joan how she’d gotten the little scar beside her mouth.”

Is nervy=nervous happening as a NOOB? The difficulty in answering is that in many quotes you have to study context clues to figure out how the word is being used. In the New Yorker quote, based on my sense of punk as a pretty twitchy affair, I think the British sense is being used. Same with these from the New York Times:

  • “Ms. Rebeck has created a noisy roomful of sharp-tongued characters who are uncomfortable in their own skin — none more so than the self-conscious Lorna, who is preoccupied with dieting, and her nervy brother Jack, who is elusive about his sudden return from New York.” (November 2012)
  • “Federer earned game point a point later with a 1-2 punch of serve and forehand winner that he followed with a deep bark of ‘come on!’, only to send another forehand well wide on the next point. Federer closed out the nervy hold two points later, however…” (July 2012, and note the logical punctuation)

I found another Times quote, from September 2012, interesting: “Those who followed [Rory] McIlroy’s final round will say he won the tournament with three birdies on the closing nine and two nervy par putts, at Nos. 14 and 17.”

It seems to me that the writer, Karen Crouse, was using nervy to mean something else, sort of the opposite of the British usage. It’s basically the OED’s definition 2a, “courageous, bold,” which the dictionary says is “now rare.” Its most recent citation is a 1942 Stevie Smith poem:  “What man will spoil the brick walls of their yellow brim? Such a one as is nervy bold and grim.” U.S. sportswriters may be bringing it back.

13 thoughts on ““Nervy”

    1. That’s interesting, because I (in Scotland, if that makes a difference) have always heard it used interchangably with “nervous”, as above. I’m happy to accept that it makes less sense to have two very similar words that mean roughly the same thing though. The only difference I can come up with is that I would describe someone with generalised anxiety as “nervy”, whereas someone who was anxious about one or more *specific things* would be “nervous” (ie. you can be nervy in itself, but you’re always nervous *about* something), but I know that at least historically “nervous” has been used for both. I assume that technically it just means “pertaining to the nerves”, which could be any state of human existence!

  1. In the UK we’d only use it to describe a mental state of nervousness.
    And isn’t that poem citation Stevie Smith (a woman) who certainly did publish a book of poetry in 1942 whereas the only poet I know of called Steve Smith was born in 1942….

  2. I’ve heard it used both ways in the States.
    About someone who is pushy, rather aggressive or aggravating, not always said nicely– “That was pretty nervy of him, grabbing it away like that.”

    Or in this case as a complimentary description. ” Well, if anyone can cut him down it will be Mary, she’s nervy as hell. ” Here it means a charged up and stand alone self confidence, possibly somewhat opinionated and domineering.

    I’ve not heard it used much in the following vein. “They were waiting, in the anteroom, all nervy and twitchy.” But the context of the sentence would show how it was meant–in this case meaning nervous and anxious.

  3. I would say that the word “edgy” is probably the closest. “He played an edgy game for the last few overs against hostile bowling”

  4. Are you sure you have the name of the website you quote right? Stoke on Trent is in Staffordshire.

  5. “To have the nerve” in Brit English suggests audaciousness or impudence. So, your example could be amended to “I had the nerve to ask Joan how….”

  6. What Phoebus said. A very British response to someone who was asking/doing something out of order (sic) would be do say: “You’ve got a nerve”, eg, “Coming back here after you drank all my vodka, fondled my wife and threw up all over the sofa? You’ve got a nerve.”

  7. This is U.S. usage as well, as in Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street: “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend…” We would definitely use it in Phoebus’s sense (“I had the nerve to…”) Maybe not so much Martyn’s, that is “You’ve got a nerve,” all by itself.

  8. I think ‘nervy’ in the British sense means ‘prone to nervousness’ rather than actually nervous. As in ‘ooh she suffers something terrible with her nerves’. In other words, it’s someone who has nervous attacks – rather an old-fashioned concept now I feel. Nowadays this might be diagnosed as depression or agoraphobia, or perhaps panic attacks.

  9. I think that in that last example, ‘nervy’ might be a synonym for ‘clutch.’ At first I thought the writer used ‘nervy’ because clutch was too informal for golf writing, but google shows that she uses clutch all the time (recent example: “His game, redolent of crisp iron play and clutch putting, has resurfaced.”) Maybe she just wanted to mix things up?

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