The Nimrod Effect: How a Cartoon Bunny Changed The Meaning of a Word Forever

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By Ken Zurski

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Earnest Shackleton

In 1909,  British explorer and Antarctic specialist Earnest Shackleton became the first person to come as close to the South Pole as any human had possibly done. The goal of course was to reach the elusive Pole, but turning back shy by only 100 miles was an accomplishment worthy of another try at least. The fact that no one died in the expedition was even better.

Shackleton had christened the ship he chose and the journey that followed by a term that reflected the mission’s quest for great resolve and discovery.

He named it Nimrod.

Wait. What?

Yes, the Nimrod Expedition, despite its insinuation, was not a mission for dummies. That’s because the word “nimrod” at the time represented something very different than it does today. Back then, strength and courage was at the word’s bent. A nimrod was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.

Shackleton’s hand picked ship, Nimrod, lived up to its moniker too, 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.”

Even before Shackleton’s journey, in the mid 19th century, the term Nimrod was being used to promote other noteworthy ventures. Financier and cutthroat ship builder 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.”

bugsIn 1940, however, everything about the word changed.  During a cartoon short titled “A Wild Hare,” a wise-cracking rabbit named Bugs Bunny called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a sarcastic reference to Fudd’s skills as a hunter. Bugs was mocking Fudd’s foolhardy abilities which kept the rabbit, Fudd’s prey, out of his cross hares, so to speak. Most children didn’t get the reference to Nimrod in biblical terms and the sarcasm went way over their heads. So the word became synonymous with a bumbling fool.

At least that’s the story.

Today, as we examine the word’s usage more closely, a nimrod may have been the implication, but certainly not the description of Shackleton and his Antarctic crew. 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 to discourage it.

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