The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny, but rather Daffy Duck, who utters the word. Nor did Daffy invent the insult, rather it comes from a slow change in the word’s meaning over the years.

Nimrod is the name of Noah’s great-grandson, whom the Bible describes as “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen 10:9). He was also a great king, and the word nimrod entered English in the sixteenth century with the sense of a tyrant. From John Bale’s c.1548 The Image of Bothe Churches:

The boystuouse tyrauntes of Sodoma wyth their great Nemroth Winchester, [...] wyll sturre abought them.

That sense didn’t last, becoming obsolete within a century, but in the seventeenth century the word began to be used as an epithet for any hunter. From William Drummond’s 1623 Flowres of Sion:

The Nimrod fierce is Death, His speedie Grayhounds are, Lust, Sicknesse, Enuie, Care.

But over time the word began to be used ironically, to refer to an inexperienced or foolish hunter. For example, Washington Irving writes in his 1835 A Tour on the Prairies:

I have observed that the wary and experienced huntsman and traveller of the prairies is always sparing of his horse, when on a journey; never, except in emergency, putting him off a walk. [...] With us, however, many of the party were young and inexperienced, and full of excitement at finding themselves in a country abounding with game. It was impossible to retain them in the sobriety of a march, or to keep them to the line. As we broke our way through the coverts and ravines, and the deer started up and scampered off to the right and left, the rifle-balls would whiz after them, and our young Nimrods dash off in pursuit.

Ben Hecht’s and Gene Fowler’s 1932 play The Great Magoo uses nimrod to refer to a man who relentlessly pursues women, a hunter of a different type:

He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.

The OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang list this citation under the sense of “inept person” and not the one for “hunter,” but the use spans both contexts and appears to be transitional.

Warner Brothers comes into the word’s history with the 1947 animated short What Makes Daffy Duck, in which Daffy Duck refers to Elmer Fudd as “my little nimrod.” Many people, including me, have distinct memories of Bugs Bunny calling Fudd a nimrod, but no one has been able to identify the specific cartoon in which he does so. (If anyone can identify a specific cartoon in which Bugs calls Fudd a nimrod, please let me know.)

Instead, it seems to be a case of quote migration and the plasticity of human memory. Pithy quotations have a tendency to be attributed to more famous people. (Think of all the false quotations attributed to Winston Churchill). In this case, the quote moved from Daffy to his more famous compatriot. People remember Bugs saying the word in much the same way they remember Humphrey Bogart saying, “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca.

So while Daffy Duck did not invent the insult, its use in the cartoon certainly did popularize and cement the sense in American slang.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2018, s. v. nimrod, n.

The Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2003, s. v. Nimrod, n.

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