Nervous Nellie Was Not a Woman

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Today I found myself using the descriptor “Nervous Nellie” in an attempt to self-deprecate when reminding a colleague to do something (as in, “I’m probably being a Nervous Nellie, but I just wanted to check whether you had done …”).  That got me thinking.  Who was Nervous Nellie, and why did it have to be a woman who was nervous?  So I consulted one of my favorite procrastination devices, the Oxford English Dictionary.  Here’s what the OED had to say:

Nervous Nellie  n.  [popularized by use in U.S. politics, esp. as applied to Frank B. Kellogg (1856-1937), U.S. politician.]  slang  (chiefly  U.S.) an overly timid, cautious, or fearful person; one who fusses unnecessarily.

Nervous Nellie aka Frank Kellogg (above left) was not a woman, as I feared.  Whew!  I breathed a sigh of relief.  But wait, is that misogyny lurking?  The original Nervous Nellie was a man, called by a woman’s name to put him down because he exhibited “womanly” traits such as timidity, caution and fear.   So to call a man a “Nervous Nellie” is to deride him as unmasculine, non-conforming to gender expectations.  To call a woman (or to call myself) a “Nervous Nellie” is to deride her for conforming too closely to gender expectations of the weak female.  I used a sexist remark to describe myself?!  Not part of my self-development plan at all.

Off I went looking for further information on Frank B. Kellogg.  I found  this  in the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress:  he was a United States Senator from Minnesota, Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of State, an Associate Judge of the Permanent Court for International Justice and the winner of the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize.  Seems like being a “Nervous Nellie” wasn’t such a bad thing after all.  Maybe I should embrace my inner Nervous Nellie.

-Bridget Crawford

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