Language Corner

When good words go bad

August 8, 2016

A letter to an advice columnist recently complained that a son’s school was treating his parents “like nimrods.” In context, it was clear that the letter writers meant “idiots.” But “nimrod” used to be a positive word, not a negative one.

Yes, it’s time for “when good words go bad.”

For many years, centuries even, “nimrod” meant “a hunter,” perhaps even a great one. In the Bible, Nimrod, a descendant of Ham, was portrayed as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes, “It’s easy to see how people made the leap from one mighty hunter in the Bible to calling any hunter a nimrod.” 

So how did he get to be an idiot?

Patience, grasshopper. 

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Nimrod was a king of Shinar, what we know more familiarly as Mesopotamia. Interestingly enough, the Mesopotamians had a war god whose name was Nintura, who was also known as a mighty hunter. Coincidence? Not to The Oxford English Dictionary, which says that Nintura begat Nimrod, etymologically speaking, and that “Nimrod” translates from the Hebrew to “we will rebel.” Turns out that neither Nintura nor Nimrod were particularly benevolent, and the first non-capitalized use of “nimrod” was “tyrant.” That usage is now obsolete. (But hold on to that thought.)

Um, “idiot”?

We’re getting there.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s explanation of the transformation: “The legendary Nimrod is also sometimes associated with the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Because the tower resulted in the wrath of the Lord and proved a disastrous idea, nimrod is sometimes used with yet another meaning: ‘a stupid person.’ ” 

But Bryan A. Garner blames Bugs Bunny. As he wrote in “The Ongoing Tumult in English Usage,” an essay in Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bugs used “nimrod” to taunt his nemesis Elmer Fudd (a hunter, no coincidence):

“What a moron! [pronounced like maroon] What a nimrod! [pronounced with a pause like two words, nim rod].” So for an entire generation raised on these cartoons, the word took on the sense of ineptitude—and therefore what was originally a good joke got ruined.

However, the OED says that “nimrod” has been used ironically for many years to mean a hunter who is maybe not-so-great. And it traces the North American slang “nimrod,” meaning “a stupid or contemptible person; an idiot” to 1933, before Bugs munched his first carrot.

Another word that lost its longtime meaning recently is “nabob.” We know what you are all thinking: “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Yes, we can thank Spiro Agnew for making “nabob” into a negative. Though in reality, we should thank William Safire, Agnew’s speechwriter.

Safire most certainly knew the contemporary definition of “nabob,” “a man of great wealth,” and he deliberately used it to skewer the elite. In so doing, he forever tarnished it: Call someone a “nabob” today, and they’re not likely to thank you. In fact, it’s hard to find any modern usage that uses “nabob” nicely. 

The pre-Safire definition of “nabob” as “a man of great wealth” descended from the original definition of “nabob”: “a native deputy or viceroy in India; a Mogul provincial governor,” as the 1949 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary had it. Because many British who went to be viceroys in India came back quite wealthy, it’s easy to see how “nabob” became attached to them as well as rich, influential people like them.

That original definition also gives us our third word that has gone to the dark side: “mogul.”

The Moguls are the Muslim descendants of the Mongol conquerors of India; as early as 1653, “Mogul” was being used to describe powerful, dominant people, according to the OED.

Most dictionaries still define “mogul” as an important, influential, dominant person. Donald Trump is often described as a “real estate mogul,” Rupert Murdoch is a “media mogul,” and Snoop Dogg is often called a “music mogul.”

But it’s not always meant as a compliment: Its connotation centers on “dominant,” as in “overbearing” or “domineering.” In fact, the OED includes the word “autocrat” in its definition of “mogul.”

Guess what’s a synonym of “autocrat”? That’s right, “tyrant.” Which brings us back to “nimrod.” Try using “nimrod” in place of “mogul” and see what happens. 

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.