Have you ever called anyone a nimrod? If so, you might want to take it back… so you can call them something much worse. We all think of a nimrod as a bungler, a dimwit, a screw up, or someone who can’t do anything right. That, you may be surprised to learn, wasn’t always the case. So what happened? Believe it or not, a beloved cartoon character named Bugs Bunny changed our perceptions forever.
In a previous blog post titled The Origin of an Ass, I discussed how the usage and even definition of the word ass has changed over time. I revisited the word origin theme in 15 Yards for Unsportsmanlike Language ,when the NFL proposed penalties for on-field use of the so called “N word.” It turns out that that particular N word didn’t used to be that bad. Nimrod, yet another dreaded N word, falls into that same category.
Once upon a time, and we’re talking bronze age here, Nimrod was feared and respected. Yes, the first Nimrod was an actual person. The name Nimrod is the Hebrew translation of Tiberian, the king of Shiner (also known as Land of Nimrod, Assyria, or Mesopotamia. According to the Book of Genesis, he was the son of Cush, the great grandson of Noah, and depicted as a “mighty one on the earth” and a “mighty hunter before God.” In Christianity as well as Hebrew, Nimrod is credited as the leader of the Hamites and the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel. If you don’t buy any of that, it’s also possible Nimrod was a distortion of Ninurta, a prominent god in Mesopotamian religion. The name has been connected to numerous other deities as well. Pick which story you want to believe. Either way, the dude was, in today’s terminology, a bad ass
Nimrod is mentioned in some early versions of the history of Freemasonry, where he was said to be one of the founders. In world literature, he made an appearance in the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Nimrod is a figure in the inferno, and portrayed as a giant, chained up with the other giants on the outskirts of Hell’s Circle of Treachery. Herman Melville created a character named Nimrod as well, although I don’t think he ever said, “Call me Nimrod.” And in 15th century English, the word nimrod could be used to refer to any tyrant.
By the beginning of the 20th century, however, nimrod was no longer in common usage and may have been forgotten completely by pretty much everyone except the person writing the scripts for all those classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. In one such cartoon, Bugs Bunny, besting his nemesis once again, sarcastically referred to Elmer Fudd as a “nimrod,” or a “poor little nimrod.” Fudd, as you’ll surely recall, was a hunter; just not a very good one. Unfortunately, all those 1930’s viewers failed to pick up on the sarcasm. And from that day forward, nimrod was a term of derision. I wish I could take the credit for making this connection. I actually learned about the history of nimrods on a recent episode of the How To Do Everything podcast. If you’ve never heard the show, I suggest you give it a try. Hosts Mike and Ian discuss everything from the original Rice Krispies characters (there used to be a fourth one named Pow) to the proper way to transport the world’s largest magnet from New York to Chicago. The show airs weekly and I guarantee you’ll learn something new every time so don’t be a nimrod and check it out.
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