Tuesday, May 23, 2023

My Little Nimrod

Nimrod is a biblical name found in the Old Testament and the Torah. He was famous for being a great hunter but also used as a type name of a tyrant as he rebelled against God. This name is popular as a given name in Hungary and not uncommon in Israel. Hunters have been referred to as Nimrods as a type name similar to how flirts are called Romeos, and it has been used to name vehicles like the British Hawker Siddeley Nimrod patrol aircraft and American Nimrod pop-up camper trailers. The composer Edward Elgar named the ninth variation of his Enigma variations Nimrod in 1899 after his editor and publisher Augustus J. Jaeger. Jaeger means hunter in German.

A Ward Industries ad for Nimrod pop-up campers in Popular Mechanics from 1965

But some time in the 1970s in Canada and the US, Nimrod came to mean klutz, geek, moron or fool. The earliest example is in the 1981 Canadian thriller movie Happy Birthday to Me. One teen character yells "Hey! That nimrod owes me 20 bucks." Then in 1982 the American movie Wacko used Nimrod in a series of insults, "Nard. Nitwit. Gonard. Cone head. Oh yes. Dip. Nimrod."

This list goes on from there and includes use in Just One of the Guys, Heathers, Pulp Fiction, Wonder Years, Child's Play 3, George Carlin stand up, Family Matters, and Cheers. It's first appearance in a slang dictionary with the idiot meaning was in 1995, and appeared in a proper dictionary in 2000.

How did this happen? There is a theory that the use of Nimrod as a type name for a hunter in a condescending or sarcastic way in 1960s Looney Tune cartoons might have led younger viewers to mistake Nimrod for a general insult. This was debunked in 1998 in Jesse Scheidlower's online column Jesse's Word of the Day. He mentioned he found two older examples of Nimrod being used to mean jerk from the 1930s, and one Newsweek letter to the editor from 1963. Although not mentioned, I believe those 2 early examples are from the 1932 play "The Great Magoo" by Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler and from the W.C. Fields 1934 film You're Telling Me. I wonder if it's important that jerk and idiot are two distinct meanings, and it is hard to distinguish their meaning when used as an insult. I looked up the references none the less.

In the first example from "The Great Magoo", the character is talking about a man's romantic pursuit of a woman, "The same old Nimrod . Won't let her alone for a second.". I don't think this is an example of Nimrod being used to mean jerk or idiot. It could easily still be a reference to the hunter meaning of the word, as in his dogged determination to chase after a woman. The second example is not as clear. While making a series of golf jokes and puns (including one about the Thousand Islands country club and Canadian Club whisky), W.C. Fields is handed a wobbly club by his caddy, to which he remarks "Little too much whip in that club, Nimrod.". When I watch this now, to me it does sound like he's insulting the caddy by calling him nimrod, meaning idiot. I can't easily link this usage with the contemporary tyrant or hunter meaning. My only guess is that it's an insider's golf joke. The reference to hunters as Nimrods appears in Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson's 1887 book "The Art of Golf". He attributes the obscurity of the sport of golf to the fact that no one writes romantic works with golf as the theme the same way you do with sport hunting. If there was some tension between those that golf and those that hunt, like "Are you a hunting club man or a golfing club man?", then calling someone a nimrod meant they definitely didn't know golf. It's still an insult, but does still rely on the hunter meaning.

The 1963 Newsweek reference is also not a clear example of nimrod being used to mean idiot, but does get closer to jerk. It’s a letter to the editor about the NCAAP suing Quaker Mills over the racist depiction of a black woman on their Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. 
….After they win that case, can whites engage their lawyer to lead in opposition to the advertisers use of that masculine, ear-ringed scrubwoman Mr. Clean? If Aunty’s image slights the negroes, what does the aforementioned nimrod do for whites?  
Karl Kirkman, Pastor, Friedens United Church of Christ, Browns, IL 
The writer is ridiculing the case by suggesting that Mr. Clean is somehow just as offensive to white people as Aunt Jemima. There is no obvious reason why Mr. Clean would be referred to as a hunter and the derogatory meaning of idiot does make sense. The clue here was that the writer was a pastor. Taking the tyrant meaning into account, for which examples can be found back to the 16th century, it looks like he means to say Mr.Clean is some sort of tyrant tormenting the poor white folk with his image, and does follow the exaggerated tone of the letter. 

Was it then really the Looney Tunes cartoon that is the origin of the mistaken idiot meaning? As you can see, using Nimrod to insult someone is not a recent development, but all of these examples do rely on a connection to the biblical Nimrod, either as a hunter or a tyrant. If someone wasn't familiar with the Biblical Nimrod reference, any insulting use of it could have lead to someone mistaken the word to mean idiot.

An early example is in the 1940 movie His Girl Friday, "Get the governor on the phone. He's not there... He's duck shooting.... Blasted Nimrod! Fishing, duck shooting..." In the 1947 movie Unconquered with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, the male lead Chris condescending says to Abbey "There, my little Nimrod, is your wolf" after they find out the source of a eerie howl is a small dog, mocking her animal identification skills. 

"There, my little Nimrod, is your wolf." Unconquered, 1947
It's been pointed out before but technically it's not true that Bugs Bunny called Elmer Fudd a Nimrod.  In 1948 the Looney Tunes short "What Makes Daffy Duck" it was Daffy Duck, not Bugs Bunny, who called Elmer Fudd "my little Nimrod", possibly as a reference to the line in Unconquered. Kids cartoons often made reference to popular media and I think it's telling that this usage has the same format of "my little Nimrod". The title of the short itself is in reference to the controversial book "What Makes Sammy Run" by Bud Schulberg. Bugs Bunny does call someone Nimrod but it was Yosemite Sam as he fills the role of hunter. The 1951 Looney Tunes short "Rabbit Every Monday" (title based off the 1949 comedy film "Chicken Every Sunday") has Bugs Bunny feeling remorse for having fooled Yosemite Sam into walking into a hot oven, saying "I couldn't do that to the little Nimrod". These are still examples of Nimrod being used as a slang term for a hunter, and aren't examples of a new use for the word. 

Daffy Duck in the 1948 Looney Tunes short "What Makes Daffy Duck"
Unlike the previous film examples, these cartoon shorts started appearing regularly on American and Canadian television in 1955 with the syndication of Looney Tunes and the start of The Bugs Bunny Show in 1960. If the slang use of nimrod to mean idiot started in the 50s and 60s with children, it makes sense that examples of this new use wouldn't show up in media until those kids were old enough to start writing scripts and producing media. They would be working age in the 1980s when the first non-hunter usage is recorded. Meanwhile the only notable use of Nimrod in reference to the hunter meaning was on camper vans and an episode of Hogan's Heroes in 1969 when Colonel Klink is passed off as the British spy code named Nimrod. With Klink being inept, this would have not clarified the meaning to younger viewers if they already thought it meant idiot. The lack of opportunities for the meaning to be corrected was important in the propagation of the new idiot meaning.

The Looney Tunes shorts were shown in British theatres too, and also aired on British television but idiot did not become the predominant meaning of Nimrod there. This is probably due to the exposure to other associations with Nimrod, like Elgar's Nimrod Variation. It's a piece of music played every year during the National Service of Remembrance, a lineup that hasn't changed since 1930. The Nimrod Variation has been described as an unofficial British anthem. Brits may have been inoculated against mistaking Nimrod for an insult. 

Nimrod continued to be occasionally mentioned in reference to the hunter in other British media as well. The 26th season of Doctor Who had a character named Nimrod in the Ghost Light serial (1989). An episode of Lovejoy in 1994 explained the great hunter meaning. As late as 2010 Nimrod was used as the name of a circus pony in the title of a children's book published in the UK. Eventually the idiot meaning of Nimrod did cross over to the UK, and it was well known enough to cause a person named Nimrod grief. In Israel, Nimrod is used more commonly as a personal name so someone connected to that Jewish community might have actually known someone named Nimrod, although I have been told it's more popular among secular Israelis.

The occasional post-1980 examples of Nimrod still being used in reference to the Biblical Nimrod in North America are intriguing exceptions to the new American meaning of idiot. The X-Men comics and cartoons had a Sentinel robot programmed to hunt mutants named Nimrod in 1985. Neil Gaiman named one of his serial killer characters Nimrod in his Sandman comic in 1989. Power Rangers named one of it's monsters The Nimrod in 1994. These exceptions all have two things in common: their creators were not born in North America and they were Jewish. Neil Gaiman and Christopher Claremont (X-men comics) are British born and Shuki Levy (Power Rangers) is from Israel. I am assuming they were not aware of the new American slang meaning of idiot or did not think it was relevant when choosing the names of their characters. Their Nimrod characters were all bad guys too, which matches closer to both the Jewish and Christian religious depiction of Nimrod as a tyrant. 

Even though we don't have proof, it is very likely that Looney Tunes did play a role in influencing the idiot meaning of the word nimrod. The usage of "my little Nimrod" in Looney Toons was likely inspired by contemporary popular films. It might have been distinct enough at the time to be parodied and could indicate that the awareness of Nimrod as a type name for a hunter was not prevalent even among the adults. The spread of the mistaken meaning may have been helped by the absence of the word being used in other cultural contexts, which is why the same mistake was less likely to be made in the UK.

In 1997 Green Day released their album "nimrod." stylized with a lower case initial letter and period. When asked about it in a 1998 interview Billie Joe Armstrong said, "It's some guy from the old testament. For some strange reason it turned into a curse; it's another name for dork.". The album art features men in suits with their faces blanked out, a striking loss of identity.

Green Day's 1997 album cover for nimrod.

Spears, R. A. (1995). NTC’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (2000). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Interview with Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong, NYROCK.com, 1998

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