Someone on Facebook shared a poster with me today, which read: “Bugs Bunny accidentally transformed the word nimrod into a synonym for idiot because nobody got a joke where he sarcastically compared Elmer Fudd to the Biblical figure Nimrod, a mighty hunter.”
This, on the face of it, seemed not unlikely. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2016) has the following:
Sometimes the source of a mutation can be hard to pinpoint. Take, for example, the word nimrod. That word has always denoted a hunter. It derives from a name in Genesis: Nimrod, a descendant of Ham, was a mighty huntsman and king of Shinar. Most modern dictionaries even capitalize the English word, unlike similar eponymic words such as mentor (= a guide or teacher, from the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey) and salon (= a legislator. from the name of an ancient Athenian lawmaker, statesman, and poet).
But few people today capitalize Nimrod, and fewer still use it to mean “great hunter.” The word has depreciated in meaning: it’s now pejorative, denoting a simpleton, a goofy person, a dummy.
Believe it or not, we can blame this change on Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character created in the 1940s. He is so popular that TV Guide in 2002 named him the “greatest cartoon character of all time.” Bugs is best known for his catchphrase “What’s Up, Doc?” But for one of his chief antagonists, the inept hunter Elmer Fudd, Bugs would chide, “What a moron! [pronounced like maroon] What a nimrod! [pronounced with a pause like two words, nim rod].” So for an entire generation raised on these cartoons, the word took on the sense of ineptitude—and therefore what was originally a good joke got ruined.
Ask any American born after 1950 what nimrod means and you’re likely to hear the answer “idiot.” Ask anyone born before 1950 what it means—especially if the person is culturally literate— and you’re likely to hear “hunter.” The upshot is that the traditional sense is becoming scarcer with each passing year.
But the OED’s first cite for this sense is from 1932, and Bugs Bunny was created in 1940.
Looking closer at the citations, though, I’m not so sure about the OED’s first citation.
1933 B. Hecht & G. Fowler Great Magoo iii. i. 183 He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.
1963 Newsweek 1 Apr. 6 The advertisers’ use of the masculine, ear-ringed scrubwoman Mr. Clean… If [Aunt Jemima’s]..image slights the Negroes, what does the aforementioned nimrod do for whites?
1988 M. Brooks Paradise Cafe 97 Neil pushed his glasses back on his nose and said that sounded very sexy. Graham laughed..and said, ‘You nimrod.’
2002 Time Out N.Y. 5 Sept. 151/2 Obviously, you don’t want to waste your time with some patronizing nimrod who’s only interested in how you can help him act out his porno fantasies.
It seems to me the the usage in the first cite is quite compatible with the meaning “mighty hunter”.
(Side bar: I learned two other things during this investigation: that the use of nimrod to mean tyrant is obsolete, and that mentor derives from the name of a character in Odyssey, rather than coming from the Latin mens. Huh!)