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Words, Oct. 15

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“ASU Worker Rips Hopeful in E-mail … JONESBORO — The news director of an Arkansas State University-owned radio station referred to one of Sen. Blanche Lincoln's opponents as a ‘nimrod' in a note sent from his state e-mail account. Greg Chance of KASU-FM thought he was sending the e-mail to Lincoln's office. Instead, he sent it to the Republican candidate he was criticizing.”

Not the first instance of someone's sending an e-mail to the wrong person, though one of the more embarrassing. But it wouldn't be  embarrassing if the word nimrod hadn't acquired a new meaning in recent years. Older dictionaries refer only to an upper-case Nimrod, a Biblical figure, and a more common lower-case version that means simply “a hunter,” the original Nimrod having been described in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Older people are likely to  recognize only those two uses.

Newer dictionaries, like the Merriam-Webster Online, say that nimrod is also a slang term for “a foolish person; a jerk.” Sometime back, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry attracted the attention of the Washington media when he called a Republican congressman “a Howdy Doody-looking nimrod.” Jonesboro is in Berry's district. Maybe he's helped popularize the word there.

It's unclear how nimrod contracted this unflattering meaning. One story is that it started with Bugs Bunny, who is said to have referred to Elmer Fudd as a “poor little Nimrod” while Elmer was doggedly hunting rabbits brighter than himself. In this version, audiences either didn't know or didn't remember the “hunter” connotation. Only the “dumb” implication stuck. But another source says nimrod was first used this way in print in the early 1930s, pre-dating Bugs and Elmer.

I suspect the derogatory sense of nimrod has something to do with the sound of the word. People heard nimrod and thought of “dimwit” and “numbskull” and such, and they decided nimrod must be a relative.

Incidentally, the congressman that Berry confronted is now being mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate, on a ticket with Sarah Palin, but Karl Rove has warned that he may be too intellectual.   

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