A couple of week’s ago, Habit Weekly reader Andy McCright brought to my attention an interesting connection (or possible connection) between Looney Toons and the popular use of the word nimrod to mean “idiot” or “incompetent” or “doofus.”
Nimrod is an eponym—that is, a word that derives from a proper name. The book of Genesis speaks of a man named Nimrod who was “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The Bible doesn’t have much else to say about him, but according to tradition, Nimrod was a tyrannical ruler in Babel and a key player in the building of the Tower of Babel. So, while Nimrod didn’t have a great reputation, he never had a reputation for stupidity or incompetence. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, the eponym nimrod was mostly used to refer to a hunter. The ship that Ernest Shackleton sailed in his epic quest for the South Pole was called the Nimrod. It’s hard to imagine him giving his ship such a name if there was even a whiff of foolishness or incompetence around the name. That was 1907. How was it that later in the same century, nimrod came to be a synonym for doofus?
One theory is that Loony Toons cartoons played an instrumental role in nimrod’s changing fortunes. Elmer Fudd, you will remember, is a hunter of rabbits and ducks, though he is not necessarily a “mighty hunter before the Lord.” Bugs Bunny, supposedly, often referred sarcastically to Elmer Fudd as a “Nimrod,” in much the same way you might refer sarcastically to a dimwitted person as an “Einstein.” According to the theory, young viewers who didn’t know about the biblical Nimrod missed the sarcasm and assumed that a nimrod must an incompetent buffoon along the lines of Elmer Fudd.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had any success tracking down specific instances of Bugs Bunny calling Elmer Fudd a nimrod. Daffy Duck, however, does so at the 40-second mark of this video clip. I don’t know if one instance of cartoon sarcasm would be enough to transform the usage of the word, but if it’s one instance of many, maybe so. In any case, one suspects that the transformation was helped along by the fact that the word nimrod just sounds like it belongs in the same category as numbskull and dipstick.
Whatever the specifics, the word nimrod’s journey from “hunter” to “doofus” is an example of pejoration, the semantic process by which a neutral or positive word becomes a pejorative word. It made me think of a couple of other eponymous words that ended up with meanings significantly more pejorative than would seem justified when you look at the people from whom the words originated.
Hector was one of the great heroes of The Iliiad. A Trojan prince and the greatest of the Trojan warriors, admired even by his enemies not only for his military excellence, but also for his nobility and sense of fair play. He was an ideal warrior, and decidedly not a bully. So how is it that hectoring refers to bullying and verbal abuse? In the seventeenth century, swaggering bullying soldier types came to be known as Hectors, and their swaggering talk came to be known as hectoring. The word was typically used sarcastically; the idea was that these braggarts were nothing like Hector—or were like Hector only in their own minds—but the usage has stuck for more than three centuries.
Another interesting eponym is the word maudlin. It derives from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, which used to be pronounced “maudlin” in England. (I’m going to need some help here from my readers in the UK…Magdalen College in Oxford and Magdalene College in Cambridge are still pronounced “maudlin,” but from what I understand, these days Mary Magdalene is pronounced Mag-da-len, just as it is elsewhere in the English-speaking world.)
Anyway, Mary Magdalene has long been associated with the unnamed woman in the Gospels who wept on Jesus’ feet, then wiped them dry with her hair. An over-the-top display of weepy emotion (or anything intended to evoke such a display) came to be called maudlin in memory of that highly emotional scene in the Gospels.
Ok, one more…the word tawdry means “cheap” or “gaudy.” Tawdry is another eponym—in a roundabout way—from Saint Audrey. Each October there was (is?) a fair in Ely in honor of St Audrey, a seventh-century queen of Northumbria. Vendors at that fair sold ribbons or scarves known as St. Audrey’s lace, which became tawdry lace (the “Sain” got dropped, leaving ‘taudrey). Since the fair ribbons, like a lot of fair merchandise, were cheap and gaudy, tawdry came to be an adjective meaning cheap and gaudy. Here’s what the entry from etymonline.com has to say about St. Audrey and ribbons and scarves:
Her association with lace necklaces is that she supposedly died of a throat tumor, which, according to Bede, she considered God’s punishment for her youthful stylishness:”I know of a surety that I deservedly bear the weight of my trouble on my neck, for I remember that, when I was a young maiden, I bore on it the needless weight of necklaces; and therefore I believe the Divine goodness would have me endure the pain in my neck, that so I may be absolved from the guilt of my needless levity, having now, instead of gold and pearls, the fiery heat of a tumour rising on my neck.” [A.M. Sellar translation, 1907]
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