Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A brief history of Nimrods

Call someone a nimrod today in the United Sates (or Canada, or other English-speaking countries) and they'll likely be unhappy about it, take it as an insult as a matter of course, even though Nimrod is still used as a proper name in many parts of the world. The source of the word--the name--is the Bible. Nimrod is mentioned in Genesis (10:8-12), I Chronicles (1:10), and Micah (5:6). From Genesis (KJV):
8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 
9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. 
10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
Cush was the grandson of Noah, making Nimrod the great-grandson of Noah. The second portion of verse 9--"wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the lord"--indicates that Nimrod became something of an ideal in this regard, as in "you're as great a hunter as Nimrod." It would have been--and still is, in some circles--high praise, no doubt.

In some Rabbinical traditions, however, Nimrod is also supposed to be the one responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel. In such narratives, Nimrod begins as the great hunter, becomes a great king, but then ceases to honor God, turning instead to idolatry with himself the new centerpiece of worship. The Tower of Babel is referred to as "the House of Nimrod." Nimrod's rebellion against God (he also supposedly tried to have Abraham killed, on more than one occasion) is typified by the construction of the Tower, dedicated to his (Nimrod's) glory, not that of God. And this bares out the original meaning of the Semitic word מרד (MRD), the root word of nimrod: to rebel.

Thus, Nimrod means both "great hunter" and "rebellious" (in a negative sense) in these traditions. His story is one of a fall from grace, of a great man who goes bad. Ultimately, Nimrod is slain by Esau, older brother of Jacob and another legendary hunter.

There are also theories about Nimrod that equate him with both Gilgamesh and Marduk of Babylonian lore. Both were great hunters, too--particularly Gilgamesh--though the similarity of Nimrod and Marduk's names is suggestive, as well. Additionally, the Etemenanki ziggurat--supposed by some to be the actual Tower of Babel, or at least the inspiration for the story--was dedicated to Marduk. Others believe Nimrod is also Orion the Hunter of Greek mythology, that the constellation of Orion is actually Nimrod, though there is little evidence of this.

All in all, Nimrod's pedigree is impressive. Despite his ultimate fall, Nimrod's name references a mighty legendary figure. And in the Christian tradition, little of the above was common knowledge, beyond what was specifically recorded in the Old Testament books. Thus, the "mighty hunter" appellation held sway for the most part.

As such, Nimrod was a good name for anything involved in hunting. The British Royal Navy, for instance, christened six HMS Nimrods from 1799 to 1915. In the United States, a number of private ships were also named Nimrod. Most of them were fishing vessels; many were actually whalers. Both usages--as military ships and as fishing ships--fit perfectly with the idea of a mighty hunter. But note that the name became far less common for ships after the 19th century. The last British ship so named was launched in 1915.

The most famous ship to be named Nimrod was indeed a British one, but it was a private fishing vessel, a sealer to be precise, built in Dundee, Scotland and launched in 1865. In 1907, at the ripe old age of forty-one, the ship was purchased by Ernest Shackleton for use in his upcoming expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton initially wanted to rename the ship, but ultimately left it as the Nimrod. Accordingly, Shackleton's failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1907-1909 is known a the Nimrod Expedition.

Today, the name might suggest a foolhardy expedition, because of the slang meaning of nimrod. Could there be some sort of linkage here? Did nimrod begin to acquire it's slang meaning of simpleton, idiot, or foolish person after Shackleton's expedition returned? Today, the Nimrod Expedition is treated as something of a great success, despite it's failure to reach the Pole. It marched further South than any previous expedition, compiled a great deal of scientific information, and tested new means of traversing the continent. Still, when it returned the Royal Geographical Society was none too impressed, going so far as to doubt Shackleton's claims with regard to how far the expedition had penetrated. In addition, financing the expedition left Shackleton deeply in debt; ultimately he was bailed out with a grant from the government for some £20,000, not exactly a small amount in 1910.

On top of all this, many viewed Shackleton as something of an upstart, as compared to well-heeled explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Carl Anton Larsen. Shackleton had been a member of Scott's previous expedition in 1904 and not acquitted himself well. The Nimrod Expedition was, in many ways, simply an attempt to prove himself.

All of that said, there is no evidence to demonstrate the slang usage of nimrod is related to the Nimrod Expedition, though one can't help but wonder why the name fell into disfavor in the Royal Navy and ceased to be as common a ship name in general shortly after Shackleton's expedition.

Instead, the slang meaning of nimrod has been traced to, of all things, a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The Free Dictionary says, in reference to the slang meaning of nimrod, that it was
...probably from the phrase "poor little Nimrod," used by the cartoon character Bugs Bunny to mock the hapless hunter Elmer Fudd.
The idea behind Bugs' turn of the phrase is that he was using it sarcastically: Elmer Fudd was no Nimrod at all, thus calling him Nimrod is akin to calling someone who can't pitch "Nolan Ryan," or someone who is slow "Jesse Owens." But for the common viewer of the cartoon, i.e. kids, as it was replayed over and over again, this nuance was lost. Thus, "nimrod" seemed to just be another kind of insult, like "nincompoop," "maroon" (my personal favorite), or "nitwit" (the first, by the way, has its own interesting backstory).

A search through various online sources of information on "nimrod" yields reference after reference to this Bugs Bunny cartoon as the touchstone for the change in meaning. Many cite this supposition as simple fact. And perhaps it is. But interestingly enough, none of them actually cite the specific short wherein Bugs utters theses words. I'm not suggesting Bugs didn't say them; I think he did. But I can't say that I know he did, because while I've seen all of the old shorts, I don't remember them word for word. People repeating the claim are not doing any actually fact-checking, from what I can see. They're taking it as a given that there is such a cartoon wherein Bugs says those words and that therefore, the cartoon is the basis for nimrod's slang meaning.

Wouldn't it be fascinating if it turned out that Bugs never uttered them, at all? That someone offered up the story for fun and it just got picked up and repeated? I actually contemplated presenting my own analysis of "nimrod," with reference to Shackleton, in the same way: the source of the slang meaning, as a matter of fact. If I had, what would the other sources say in a year from now? In five? In ten?

People take a lot on the internet for granted, particularly when they're looking for information, hunting for information, if you will. And they often don't verify it; sometimes they simply can't. So, who are the real nimrods?

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. "Beam me up, Scottie."

    A good read, thank you.