By Ken Zurski
The Nimrod Expedition despite its name was not a mission for dummies. Led by British explorer and Antarctic specialist Ernest Shackleton , the mission set off in January of 1909 with the objective of becoming the first team to reach the South Pole. That didn’t happen, but they did get closer to the pole than anyone else, just under 100 miles.
Basically they were all “nimrods,” like the expedition name would suggest, but not in the way you think.
That’s because at the time, the word “nimrod” represented something different than it does today. Strength and courage was its bent. A nimrod basically was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.
The polar expedition itself is named for Shackleton’s hand picked ship, the Nimrod, a reference to Nimrod, the biblical figure and “mighty hunter before the Lord” from the Book of Genesis. Nimrod was an older boat and needed work, but Shackleton had little recourse with limited funds. He would eventually praise the small schooner as “sturdy” and “reliable.”
Nimrod was not an uncommon moniker. In the mid 19th century, financier Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. Befitting his reputation, Vanderbilt demanded the Nimrod be stronger and faster than the others. No doubt the naming of the ship reflected this too.
And in 1899, composer Edward Elgar wrote a symphonic piece that had 14 variations each written for or about a personal acquaintance.
The ninth variation was titled Nimrod. “An amusing piece,” Elgar said referring to his friend and subject, August Johannes Jagear, a music publisher and accomplished violinist. Rather than a slight, however, Elgar’s piece was a compliment. Jäger in German meant “hunter.”
Then in 1940, thanks to cartoon character named Bugs Bunny, the meaning of the word changed forever.
During a short titled “A Wild Hare,” Bugs called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a reference to Fudd’s lack of skills as a hunter. Bugs sarcasm was evident, but most children didn’t get it. Nimrod, the word, soon became synonymous with a bumbling fool, like Fudd’s character.
Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the word “nimrod” as slang for “idiot” or “jerk.”
That may have been the implication, but certainly not the description, of Shackleton and his crew. But those who wished to board the Nimrod, some might say, were playing a fools game.
Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men . “A hazardous journey,” he warned, with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton implied, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.
Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he implored.
Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around to dissuade them.