My teenage son is a nimrod. Or so I thought.
And if you have teenagers, and were born in the second half of the twentieth century, you have probably thought at one time or another that your son (or daughter) was a nimrod too, and would not require any specific evidence to explain why.
Of course this is the case only if you are of a certain age: namely, a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer (like myself).
For if you are any older, and if you are rather literate, then you would be perplexed as to why I would think that my son was a nimrod, and why was I not capitalizing Nimrod as it should be. Since it is, after all, a proper noun.
Yes, it is. Or rather it was. Let me explain.
It turns out, the word “nimrod” (or more properly “Nimrod”) has a fascinating history in which it goes about a substantial reinterpretation. (Any nimrod can find this out by searching the web, though there is precious little explanation there.) This, by itself, isn’t surprising, as many words that make their way through the ages transform as well. But the transformation of “Nimrod” to “nimrod” is particularly interesting in what it tells us about ourselves and our culture.
Nimrod, you see, was a character from the Hebrew Scriptures, or as Christians know it, the Old Testament:
“Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, ʻLike Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.ʼ” (Genesis 10:8-9 NRSV)
This is the manner in which older biblically literate folks will understand the term: “as a mighty hunter.”
But there’s more here, for these folks also might understand the term as referencing a tyrannical ruler.
Why? Well, the etymology of the word links it to the Hebrew “to rebel,” not for anything that Nimrod actually does in the Old Testament, but because, as many scholars attest, it is probably a distortion of the name for the Mesopotamian war-god Ninurta. And the later chroniclers of Israelite religion didn’t have much sympathy for the polytheism of their Mesopotamian neighbors—especially when it so obviously informed their own religious mythology.
So the word, when it very early on enters the biblical narrative, already shows signs of transformation and tension as referencing both a mighty hunter as well as someone rebellious against the Israelite god.
In fact, Jewish and Christian tradition name Nimrod as the leader of the folks who built the Tower of Babel, though this is not found anywhere in the scriptures. This, then, is how Nimrod is now portrayed in more conservative circles, despite the lack of biblical attestation:
And as the word is already attested to in Middle English, by the 16th century it is clearly being used in both manners in the English language: as a tyrant and as a great warrior or hunter.
Now I can assure you, neither of these describes my teenage son. So what gives?
Well, “Nimrod” shows up in a 1932 Broadway play (which only had 11 showings) about two lovesick youngsters:
“He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.”
Here, however, the emphasis is still on the term’s former meaning as a hunter, though its use in the play to describe a somewhat frivolous and hapless fellow who moves from one true love to the next points us in the right direction.
And in a 1934 film You’re Telling Me, W.C. Fields’ character, a bit of a buffoon himself (and a drunkard), takes a few swings of a limp golf club and hands it back to his dim-witted caddy, saying in a way only W.C. Fields could:
So here we have the first recorded instance of the word’s transformation from a great hunter or tyrant to a stupid person or jerk.
But that’s not the end of the story. After all, how many of us have seen You’re Telling Me? (I haven’t, at least, not until I did the research.)
So the last, and arguably most important piece to the puzzle is not the origination of the word or its transformation, but rather the dissemination of it.
And that, as I’m sure many of you are aware, is none other than T.V. Guide’s greatest cartoon character of all time: Bugs Bunny, who first debuted in the 1940’s, not that long after You’re Telling Me premiered.
In this context, the one most folks born after World War II are familiar with, Bugs Bunny refers to the inept hunter Elmer Fudd as a “little nimrod.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
For what emerges from Bugs’ usage is not the traditional reference to Fudd as a hunter (though this is the obvious, albeit ironic, intention), but rather Fudd’s more enduring (and endearing?) quality of ineptitude and buffoonery.
And anyone who has (or knows) a teenager can certainly attest to the applicability of this use of the term in describing him or her.
But the important thing is what this says about literacy and our contemporary culture.
For whereas my parents’ generation and earlier were more likely than not to receive their cultural education from Classical stories, the great literature of Europe, and the Bible, those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century and later, are much more likely to receive our cultural education from popular culture.
I have seen this firsthand when teaching, for example, Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” which offers a critique of Judaism and Christianity by parodying scripture. The trouble is, when students don’t know the referent, they can’t fully understand or appreciate the allusion. And this is as true of Shakespeare and Milton as it is of Nietzsche…or Bugs Bunny for that matter.
And the ramifications of this are far greater than my choosing the proper term to criticize my teenage son.
(Though ya gotta admit, “nimrod” sounds pretty apropos.)