By Ken Zurski
The Nimrod Expedition despite its name was not a mission for dummies. Led by British explorer and Antarctic specialist Earnest 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.
Shackleton’s hand picked ship, the Nimrod, was not his first choice, and hardly lived up to its moniker, 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.”
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.
Even before Shackleton’s journey, in the mid 19th century, financier Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. It had to be built stronger and faster than others, Vanderbilt instructed. 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, it was a compliment. Jäger in German meant “hunter.”
In 1940, the cartoon character Bugs Bunny is credited with changing the meaning of the word. During a short titled “A Wild Hare,” Bugs called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a sarcastic reference to Fudd’s lack of skills as a hunter. Bugs was the hunted. Most children didn’t get it and Nimrod became synonymous with a bumbling fool.
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. After all who was crazy enough to go? Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men and warned of a “hazardous journey” with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.” If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton expressed, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.
Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he suggested.
Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around.