Friday, February 26, 2010

nimrods and other idiots

Tim L wrote (a long time ago) to ask about nimrod:
Have you stumbled across the difference in meanings of the word "nimrod" in American and other Englishes?  It was a surprise to me to learn that it meant something other than dimwit, and a bigger surprise to learn that it meant dimwit only in American English.  The history is mysterious
       http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nimrod
though the Bugs Bunny explanation is widely touted on the 'net.
Nimrod, as you may know, is the name of a character in Genesis--Noah's great-grandson, and based on that it can be used to refer to 'a great hunter'.  But like many Americans, I knew it first as a word for an idiot, or as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, 'A person regarded as silly, foolish, or stupid.'  It's the kind of thing that would make one giggle if one heard it in Sunday School.  I was also unduly amused when I discovered that there's a Biblical personage named Dorcas--because of the name's similarity with the American slang term dork which these days means something very much like nimrod, but has also been used to mean 'penis'.

So, coming from an American perspective, it's surprising and strange to find that in the UK it's best known as a type of military (BrE) aeroplane/(AmE) airplane.  It sounds like having a plane named (AmE) doofus or (BrE) der-brain or (BrE) div or (particularly northern BrE) numpty.  So, speaking of "Nimrod accidents" will probably bring up different pictures in the minds of British or American listeners.

28 comments:

Stan said...

Bryan Garner notes wittily that the slang usage "threatens to kill off" the traditional sense of nimrod = great or skil{l}ful hunter.

During my college years I mostly associated the word with the Pixies' song "Nimrod's Son" (audio NSFW).

arwel said...

As a UK-ian, this is the first I've ever heard of the American usage (and I'm 51). I can see why the British equivalent of an AWACS plane would be named after a mighty hunter.

Tom Roper said...

Similarly the American usage was completely unknown to me. OED gives that meaning, with first recorded use in 1963 in Newsweek, also as a verb, meaning to make into a hunter.
I have known several cats named Nimrod, because they were 'mighty hunters'

jhm said...

perhaps it's because I am one, but 'div' makes no impression on my AmE ears. It sounds, in a BrE context like the 'divy' from "Lovejoy."

empty said...

(I have known cats who could be equally well described as mighty hunter and doofus.)

Anonymous said...

If a Bugs Bunny cartoon is genuinely responsible for the semantic drift from "hunter" to "idiot" – one of which I, as a British English speaker, had never heard before – a similar case has happened in reverse with the word "goofy".

Americans use the word a lot on the internet, in the sense of "off the wall" or "wacky", whereas to most British children the word is used to describe someone with buck teeth, because of the dental features of the Disney cartoon character.

Huw said...

Hence the joke:

Lawyer: Mr Mouse, I'm afraid that your wife having buck teeth is no grounds for divorce.

Mickey: Who said anything about buck teeth? I said she was ****ing Goofy!

Zhoen said...

Huw,

The joke here(Am/E) starts, "Insanity is not grounds for divorce." Goofy being a term for a kind of soppy crazy person, especially "F-ing goofy," as well as the more general dopey and silly.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The American usage was new to me, too. But I can see how our aeroplane/airplane would make Americans snicker....

Is the term "Dorcas-party" for sewing-party (often, but not invariably, a Church sewing party) British or American - I had somehow thought it was the latter, but am now confused!

Lance said...

It also summons up images of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations.

vp said...

I've lived in the US for the past twelve years and had no idea about this AmE meaning of "nimrod" until today. The things you learn...

Anonymous said...

Mighty hunter for me (BrE). And Elgar.

But it also reminds me of Nimby (which seems to be more BrE than AmE).

Stephen Jones said...

I had no idea of the American meaning.

Amy said...

I have never heard of the BrE meaning. To my (under 25yrs) AmE ears, if I had heard of the plane without knowing how the word is used in BrE, I definitely would have at least wondered why they would use an insult as the name. Also, I've never heard the word "goofy" to mean anything other than silly or wacky.

lekkermeisje said...

Heh. My friend was traveling in Michigan last year and laughed when he came across Watersmeet School--home of the Nimrods. He took pictures of the building to show everyone. http://www.watersmeet.k12.mi.us/

mollymooly said...

The great Irish word for fool is of course "eejit"; a variant of "idiot" now with a different shade of meaning. It's more akin to "fool", since it can also be a verb, as in "stop your eejiting".

Never heard of "div"; only know "der-brain" from the "Balderdash & Piffle" wordhunt appeal Only know "goofy" in the US sense "stupid". I have interpreted "goofy grin" as "stupid grin" with no particular reference to teeth.

I've come across a few Irish people called Dorcas; it might be of the Anglo names used arbitrarily as replacements for Gaelic ones, like Thaddeus and Jeremiah. Most of those seem to be male, though.

@Zhoen "a kind of soppy crazy person". What do you mean by "soppy"? I only know it to mean "maudlin".

lynneguist said...

@mrs redboots: I've never heard of a Dorcas party, but I did find a use of it on a Presbyterian church website in the US. I guess it depends on what circles you travel in...

Valerie said...

I thought der-brain was actually Australian in origin- I haven't heard it in the UK. Along with drongo and dag and droob... Aussie slang is very picturesque.

lynneguist said...

The OED has der-brain as 'Brit., Austral., & N.Z.' and their earliest examples are British, but that doesn't mean much, because their earliest examples are quite late (80s). It's what Better Half gave me as their South London (in the 1970s) playground equivalent for nimrod...but I've no idea if it started in the Antipodes.

Richard Sabey said...

The first association of Nimrod for me is the Elgar variation (I grew up in a musical family in Malvern: quintessential Elgar country); the second, the "mighty hunter".

I'd never come across this AmE slang usage before. I find it surprising. Can't people invent their own words for slang, or, if they reuse existing ones, pick ones which don't have such a contrasting meaning?

townmouse said...

Given it's televisual origins, perhaps 'muppet' might be the best UK equivalent of Nimrod?

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

Never come across Nimrod as anything but planes and hunters before this post (hence my capital N).

Very familiar with "eejit" from ScE, Mollymooly, but I've never heard of it being used as a verb before.

Boris Zakharin said...

Is the British nimrod pronounced differently from American nimrod? When we talk about Nimrod in (Hebrew) bible contexts, we say Nim-road, while in the insult sense (I'm in the US) it's nim-rod.

Also, the last time I heard nimrod used as an insult was in elementary school. Perhaps the fact that I went to religious school (where the original Nimrod is more widely known) after that. But I haven't noticed it in wider use either. In fact, even in elementary school, there was one person who would use the word all the time and it needed to be explained to some.

Also, I was not aware that the word had any other figurative sense except the US one.

Doug Sundseth said...

"But it also reminds me of Nimby (which seems to be more BrE than AmE)."

The only Nimby I (AmE, mostly) know is probably better written as NIMBY, since it's an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, mostly used attributively.

I assume that's AmE, since I think that "back yard" in that sense is mostly AmE (and perhaps AusE?).

Anonymous said...

For those who don't know, Elgar named the best-known of his Enigma Variations "Nimrod" as a tribute to his Anglo-German friend Jaeger, whose name is the German for "hunter". I, too, was unaware of the word's use to mean "fool".

Dorcas in the Bible was an early Christian woman who made clothes for the poor, hence the use for a charitable sewing party.

Kate (Derby, UK)

mollymooly said...

@Boris Zakharin:

I think "Nim-road" is only for those who know Hebrew rather than Americans generally; Merriam-Webster doesn't list it.

Albert Herring said...

I (a Brit) am another in the Elgar/hunter camp, and was totally unaware of the American usage, but in the 1970s my very British physics teacher used to use it routinely as a sarcastic vocative to those with whom he was losing patience (i.e. me). No idea if he got it from Bugs Bunny, though.

enitharmon said...

Doug Sundseth wrote:
I assume that's AmE, since I think that "back yard" in that sense is mostly AmE (and perhaps AusE?).

In many urban areas there are lots of terrace/row houses which have a concreted area called a back yard, which used to house the privy and the coalshed but in these days of gas central heating and modern plumbing can be used for big pots of plants that don't need weeding. The shock to my linguistic system in the US was a yard as a big expanse of grass with no attempt to grow vegetables.

Nimrod to me is the Elgar, a piece that occupies much the same cultural niche as Barber's Adagio for Strings does in US culture. I'm rather allergic to Elgar; to me he represents a strain of Englishness I have long rejected. For the spirit of England give me Vaughan Williams over Elgar, but a good brass band for preference. For nationalist bombast give me Sibelius, and for a fine Romantic 'cello concerto Dvoƙak's yer man.

I was unaware of 'nimrod' as an insult. 'Divvy' was commonplace in Liverpool and on the Wirral; Fritz Spiegl in Lern Yerself Scouse suggests Deva hospital in Chester as an origin. My ex's favourite insult was "you prune!".