Nimrod
Posted: 18 October 2017 04:17 AM   [ Ignore ]
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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!)

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Posted: 18 October 2017 04:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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mentor derives from the name of a character in Odyssey

Nope, it derives from the name of a character in Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque.  See this LH post (with OED etymology).

Edited to add: Also, your earlier guess was not entirely off the mark; the OED says: “The ancient Greek name is recorded as a historical personal name in the 4th cent. It may be cognate with MIND n.”

[ Edited: 18 October 2017 04:58 AM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 18 October 2017 05:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Nope, it derives from the name of a character in Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque.  See this LH post (with OED etymology).

But it still derives from the Odyssey; just at one remove. And even without Fenelon’s book, it’s quite possible to imagine Mentor being adopted as a name for a wise older adviser: several other Homeric characters’ names became household words, or at least used to typify stock characters.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 07:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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But it still derives from the Odyssey; just at one remove.

Well, you could say Ford in “driving a Ford” derives from a ford across a river; it does, just at one remove.  It’s not wrong, but I’m not sure how helpful it is.

And even without Fenelon’s book, it’s quite possible to imagine Mentor being adopted as a name for a wise older adviser

It’s possible to imagine pretty much anything, but given that it was not so used in the thousands of years before Fénelon’s book, I think it’s pretty unlikely.  In Homer, while Mentor could be described as “a wise older adviser,” the thing you remember about him is that Athena appeared in his guise when she wanted to hang out with Telemachus.  He’s not really a major player (which is why his name was not used as a metonym for anything until Fénelon decided to make a protagonist out of him).

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Posted: 18 October 2017 08:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The things you learn. But if the OED could get it wrong, I don’t feel that ashamed that I’ve been under a misapprehension about the derivation most of my life.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Yeah, I had always assumed it was from Homer—I wrote the LH post in my shock and surprise!

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Posted: 18 October 2017 11:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Very interesting that Fénelon was responsible for the usage of mentor as a counsellor. I of course knew Mentor from the Odyssey and had always assumed that was the source of the usage but language hat is right, Fénelon must be given the credit for this. Homer can take some consolation in Stentor though, that one does go back to the Iliad and the modern usage derives directly from it.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 12:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I should add that I got interested enough at the time to actually read a good chunk of the novel (in translation), and while it is certainly no page-turner, I didn’t find it as tedious as Bell implied.  For a novel whose primary aim is moral education, it’s a decent read (as long as you skip judiciously).

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Posted: 18 October 2017 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Thanks for the information regarding Les Aventures de Télémaque, lh. It seems that wrinkle is not all that well-known: Garner’s Modern American Usage and etymonline peg it from Odyssey.

But am I getting any support on that first nimrod cite? Is it reasonable to say that the association between nimrod and idiocy is down to Bugs Bunny?

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Posted: 19 October 2017 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Bringing the discussion back to “nimrod” and Bugs Bunny, I think both sides are right to a degree.  When Bugs calls Elmer Fudd a “nimrod” he is using the word in is classic sense, but sarcastically.  Fudd is the opposite of a mighty hunter, hence the humor.  The sarcastic use of “nimrod” long predates Bugs Bunny.  A quick trawl through genealogybank turns up the headline “Amateur Nimrod Wounds 15 People” (Columbus (S.C.) Ledger August 11, 1921) about a guy who tried to take down a runaway bull in the street with a shotgun.  It didn’t go well.  Here is a wire story (Harrisburg Patriot December 23, 1920) from Chicago:  “Back in 1916, Horace Jackson, champ nimrod of the Board of Trade here, got lost while on a hunting trip in the Canadian woods and for two weeks his friends searched before they found him.” The joke was that he was preparing for another hunting trip, and his friends gave him a cowbell to wear.  Then there is the headline (Idaho Statesman September 28, 1908) “Boy Shoots Away Part of Hand:  Young Nimrod Narrowly Escapes Blowing Off the Side of His Head.” And so on. 

The sarcastic use is a natural, for those so inclined.  Someone does something stupid while hunting, or engaging in vaguely hunting-like activity.  “What a Nimrod!” Bugs using it wasn’t anything new.  What was new was viewers who didn’t know the meaning of the word reanalyzing it simply as “idiot” (or, this being Bugs Bunny, “idjit").

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Posted: 19 October 2017 09:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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The sound of the word alone may have doomed it to take on the “idiot” meaning.

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Posted: 20 October 2017 05:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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But the reason you think that is that you’re familiar with it in that meaning.  Do you think “ramrod” sounds like it means “idiot”?

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