September 30, 2014

Words of the Month - Of Nimrods and Nincompoops

        Bugs Bunny, smart alec that he is, is never without a snappy insult for his antagonists.  Some of his favorites, such as maroon, a simple mispronunciation of moron, he applies in many situations, but Bugs often gets more specific.  For example, in “Bully for Bugs” he calls Toro the bull a nincowpoop, tailoring his mispronunciation to the occasion.  This month’s words are three silly, sometimes even affectionate, Bugs Bunny insults that turn out to derive from the names of specific people.

smart alec(k) - Its first use in print is attested from 1865, but its probable origins lie with the shenanigans of a certain Alexander Hoag in the 1840s.  He and his wife ran a scam in which he would rob her customers while she kept them occupied (if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge).  Alec gave local cops a share of the takings in return for turning a blind eye.  Then Alec got smart.  He came up with a new way to rob the customers that wasn’t so obviously tied back to him, which he felt the cops didn’t need to know about at all.  Which was great until the police realized he was cheating them out of their hard-earned graft, whereupon they arrested Alec and his wife Melinda.  Thus the police gave the nickname Smart Alec to Mr Hoag and soon to other criminals who were too smart for their own good.

nincompoop - Dating back to the mid seventeenth century (and first spelled nicompoop) Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary gave the word a derivation from the Latin legal phrase non compos mentis, which is a pretty appealing theory, but one for which linguists find no other evidence and can’t square the earlier spelling.  The current theory is that this is another word derived from another man who behaved stupidly: in this case, Jesus’s follower Nicodemus.  Now, it hardly seems fair that a respected member of the Sanhedrin who was later martyred and sainted should have his name turned into a synonym for fool, but apparently this is based on the incident where he questioned Jesus and had trouble understanding his teachings, and therefore was given as an example of someone who didn’t quite get it.  (Which just goes to show that folks in the seventeenth century must have felt pretty darn smug about their understanding of Jesus, because it seems to me that if not entirely understanding the teachings of Jesus is sufficient to qualify one as an idiot, then we’re all in trouble.)  Apparently in French nicodéme means "fool", making the name even clearer.

nimrod - In another example of Bugs Bunny’s ability to pick the appropriate insult, he calls the gweat hunter Elmer Fudd a “poor little Nimrod.”  Nimrod, as Bugs well knew, was another Biblical character, this time from back in Genesis and Chronicles, where he is named as a grandson of Noah, a king, and “a mighty hunter before God.”  That’s really about all the Bible has to say, but the religions that use these texts all have traditions that associate Nimrod with the Tower of Babel and opposition to God.  By the fifteenth century English speakers used the name Nimrod to mean “tyrant” and later to mean “hunter of great physical strength.”  It isn’t surprising that it should have been applied from time to time sarcastically, 
and Bugs Bunny was not the first to do so.  He was, however, the most public and popular to do so, and he did so at a time when fewer people knew their obscure Biblical hunters any more, leading to the widespread reinterpretation of the word nimrod as a synonym for “jerk, idiot, or dimwit.”  (At least, this reinterpretation is almost universal in Bugs’s homeland, but not common in other English-speaking areas.)

        This Bugs Bunny origin of the “idiot” definition of nimrod has had the internet all a-buzz recently, and I find it quite plausible myself.  This is the time, however, to note that all three of the etymologies I’ve shared today are, like so many others, best theories rather than proven facts.  It’s hard enough to prove any etymology conclusively, and slang terms are harder by far, because of their shyness about showing up in citeable printed records.  So, back to Bugs and Elmer…  The story of the fall of Nimrod is all over the web, but almost nowhere does anyone actually name a cartoon in which it appears.  The only one cited anywhere that I could find is 1940’s “A Fresh Hare,” but I watched it carefully, and Bugs Bunny never calls Elmer “Nimrod” here.  I’m not going to say the story’s busted, because I’m positive that I recall Bugs Bunny using the insult, but I can’t remember in which cartoon.  Can anyone else?  If any Bugs Bunny fans out there can tell me where this usage appears, I’d love to know!  In the meantime, we can all hope that our own names don’t someday end up in the dictionary meaning something bad.

[Pictures: Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, designed by Bob Givens, 1940;
Christ and Nicodemus, woodcut by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1919 (Image from LACMA);
Nimrod fights with the boar, engraving from a picture by Franz Ludwig Catel, from Historisches Bildrebüchlein by J.H. Kampe, 1801 (Image from Virtuelles Kupferstichkabinett).]

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