Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hey, Nimrod! - Etymology and Shifts in Meaning

"Hey, nimrod! How's it going?"

That wasn't very nice, was it? Chances are that if you greet someone like that you might just get a punch in the face, or at least a sour look. However, "nimrod" wasn't always an insult--it is actually a biblical name.

According to the Bible, Nimrod was the great-grandson of Noah, and the first person to play a large active role after the great flood. He was an expert hunter and the ruler of Shinar. Shinar is a biblical geographical region in Mesopotamia which has been historically linked to Babylonia. In fact, "The Land of Nimrod" is used in the Book of Micah (Micah 5:6) as a synonym for Mesopotamia or Assyria.

Although the Bible doesn't clearly state this, it is common belief in both Hebrew and Christian traditions that Nimrod was the leader who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. This connection was made mainly because the location of the tower fell in the heart of his kingdom.

With all this information, I can assume that Nimrod was considered an important and powerful man in biblical history. He was a mighty warrior and skilled hunter, the ruler of Shinar... 
So how did his name come to mean "idiot" or "inept"? You won't believe the answer...

In a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs’s fumbling nemesis Elmer Fudd as a hunter on the rabbit’s trail, the carrot-chomping coney sardonically refers to Fudd as a nimrod — insulting him by derisively comparing him to a biblical personage renowned for his hunting skills. Apparently, later generations of Looney Tunes fans who hadn’t kept up with their Scripture picked up on Bugs’s attitude without understanding the ironic allusion, and the word acquired a new meaning, while its original sense faded into the background.[1]

So, it seems we can thank Looney Tunes for this (unintentional) shift in meaning. Basically, Bugs Bunny's use of sarcasm equates to him saying something like: "Nice going, Einstein!"--where "Einstein" is used as a sarcastic form of "genius." As the name Nimrod was not well-known among its viewers, the meaning shifted over time.

However, just how true is this allegation? There are those who believe Bugs Bunny wasn't being sarcastic when he called Elmer Fudd "Nimrod." There are those who believe Bugs was using "Nimrod" directly as a synonym for "idiot," much in the same way Americans use "Benedict Arnold" for "traitor."

The reasoning is simple: let's suppose it was Nimrod who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. Some interpretations see Nimrod as an arrogant tyrant who ordered the massive tower to reach the heavens and make a name for the people. Some describe him as a rebel who defied God by constructing the gargantuan monument. The endeavor didn't end well...

Up until that point, the bible claims all humans spoke the same language, but God decided to put an end to the Tower of Babel absurdity by causing people to speak different languages and scattering them over the globe. This event is known as the "confusion of tongues."

So who was responsible for all this confusion and scattering? Nimrod, the ruler, of course. He dared defy God, and he was an idiot for doing so. Thus, some believe the Looney Tunes script purposefully used the name Nimrod as an insult--no sarcasm needed.

Which is the true explanation for this shift in meaning? We may never know...


By the way, I would also like to point out that other interpretations of the Bible see the Tower of Babel as a cradle of civilization, and the "confusion of tongues" not as a punishment, but as a way of explaining cultural differences around the world. This interpretation immediately reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, where the author gives interesting explanations of how some things came to be (how the elephant got its trunk, how the camel got its hump, etc.).


[1] Daily Writing Tips - Accidental Shifts in Meaning



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