Accidental Shifts in Meaning

By Mark Nichol

Words often slowly change their meanings over time — and sometimes, as in the case of fulsome, flip-flop — but occasionally popular culture inadvertently puts them on the fast track to transformation.

Movies and television shows introduce or popularize new senses for words all the time, but there are at least two cases in which filmed entertainment unintentionally created new senses for words that supplanted the original usage.

In the first instance, it was actually the print version of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, in which the author dared to have protagonist Sam Spade refer to a member of antagonist Kasper Gutman’s entourage as “your gunsel.” That word, probably from the Yiddish term for “young goose,” originally was hobo slang for a boy in a sexual relationship with an older man. Lore has it that Hammett intended that meaning and inserted it in the original short story to put one over on a prissy magazine editor.

When screenwriter and first-time director John Huston adapted Hammett’s tale for the big screen — supposedly by merely transcribing the story’s dialogue — he retained the term, and the movie-going public, like the editor, assumed that the word refers to a gunman. Ever since then, writers searching for an evocative slang term for a hired gun have passed the viral error on.

A similar transmogrification occurred with the word nimrod, a generic reference to the biblical character of that name, who in the Good Book is referred to as “a mighty hunter.” How, then, did the word become a synonym for jerk or idiot? We have none other a personage (or, more accurately, a rabbitage) than Bugs Bunny to thank for this significant shift in meaning.

In a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs’s fumbling nemesis Elmer Fudd as a hunter on the rabbit’s trail, the carrot-chomping coney sardonically refers to Fudd as a nimrod — insulting him by derisively comparing him to a biblical personage renowned for his hunting skills. Apparently, later generations of Looney Tunes fans who hadn’t kept up with their Scripture picked up on Bugs’s attitude without understanding the ironic allusion, and the word acquired a new meaning, while its original sense faded into the background.

The moral of these stories? If you come across a mystery word in your reading and are tempted to employ it in your own writing, first be sure you understand its implications.

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16 Responses to “Accidental Shifts in Meaning”

  • Jeff Goins

    This was really interesting — especially the nimrod allusion. Thanks, Mark!

  • Charity

    What perfect timing! I was wondering only a few days ago about how “nimrod” came to be the slangy insult it is today. (I think I just happen to like the word, actually.)

    Now that I think of it, there were an awful lot of classical allusions in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and I imagine that most modern viewers would never catch on. We’ve abandoned our classics!

  • Helen

    Note that “nimrod” as an insult doesn’t exist in British English (in my experience, anyway). We associate the word with the Elgar music of the same name, and the Royal Air Force’s famous “spy” planes that were recently decommissioned as part of the defence cuts, but I’ve never heard it used as an insult!

  • Mark MacKay

    First of all I love the title of this article – sounds like a good title for a book of poems or a short film.

    Second – thanks for sharing a bit of gay history – and not editing it out existence. We’re here now and we were there then.

    Finally – hoyden. Not sure if it’s an apt example. I just like the word and it came to mind while I was reading.

  • TheSongFrog

    Thus we find ourselves offered seemingly conflicting meanings in dictionaries, such as this entry:

    non·plussed/nänˈpləst/
    Adjective:
    1. (of a person) Surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.
    2. (of a person) Unperturbed.

    I once try to explain to someone the true origin and meaning of “Nimrod,” but the only feedback I received was a blank stare. Now when I meet people like that, I feel a desire to hand them a lit cigarette and send them to stand next to a leaky tank marked “INFLAMMABLE.”

  • venqax

    Interesting. I’ve encountered nimrod exclusively as an insult, and just assumed it was no more complex than it sounds like an insult. Calling someone a nimrod simply doesn’t sound anything but pejoritive. Probably false association with nincumpoop (various spellings), dimwit, nitwit, numbnuts, etc. Likewise nonplussed just sounds like it means nearly the opposite of what it does. Non-plussed, not-perturbed, non-surprised, etc. Not excuses for such illitieracy, mind you, just explanations. Likewise enormity means large in size. Noisome means noisy. Errant means mistaken, or wrongdoing. Potable means it is kept in a pot. Crapulent…

  • JonB

    >”We have none other a personage (or, more accurately, a rabbitage) than Bugs Bunny to thank…”

    “Rabbitage?” Really? How the author let the much more apt term “hareitage” get away here is a mystery.

  • robert s. dudley

    He also established the insult “what a maroon” (moron)and “what an imbessile” (imbecile)! One of Hollywood’s immortals.

  • Jacob

    That’s an interesting conclusion. I was going to go the opposite and suggest using a word however you want and humanity will fill in the meaning later.

  • Steven

    Great article, very interesting. I would love to read about more words that have “accidentally” shifted in meaning and usage. However, I do not agree with the moral of the article. Words are going to shift and change despite our efforts. Language is a living and breathing entity. It is going to adapt and there are going to be “accidents”. The same thing happens in every area of existence. The course of the human race has definitely been altered heavily by accidents. This is just the way it works. By trying to avoid it you are probably causing it to happen in other areas. Still insanely interesting, nonetheless.

  • Jeremy

    Well interesting, in the tv show surface (It’s on netflix) one of the creatures was named nimrod and well he turned out to be one of the mighty hunters…a “sea dragon/sea serpent” that was created and could bring about a change in evolution blah blah blah. The creature was called thus because the children who found the creature didn’t know and used it derisively to be bad. Turns out he was named correctly I suppose. I wonder if the writers knew about the allusion to Nimrod the hunter.. thanks for the information was rather interesting.

  • Javier Rosa

    Thanks for clearing another confusion for me. In the X-Men animated series there was a character called Nimrod who was effectively a hunter of X-Men. I couldn’t understand how the character came by that name as I understood it to be an insult. I rationalized it away as having to do with the character’s back story.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimrod_%28comics%29

  • Jonomonster

    @venqax

    “Dimwit” does not seem to me a generic, meaningless sort of insult. It seems quite plain and self explanatory. Dim, meaning dull, faint or unremarkable. Wit meaning someone’s wisdom or intelligence, or perhaps common sense. Put them together and you get a fool, idiot, someone of vague intelligence or little sense.

  • venqax

    nitwit and numbnuts have actual relevant meanings too. My point wasn’t that nimrod doesn’t mean anything, but that it sounds like things that do– and are generally seen as insults.

  • Sam

    The “good book” does suggest Nimrod is a mighty hunter, but he is also the guy who thought he could build a tower to heaven (Tower of Babel). He defied God and thus he’s an “idiot”. In Dante’s Inferno he is described as someone who nobody can understand, (which is part of the Gods punishment, which was applied to all of mankind at the time – thanks God, btw)

    So, it wasn’t a misunderstanding when Bugs calls Elmer a Nimrod, it was a purposeful insult – the mighty, idiot hunter. Many may not have realized it at the time because it might not have been in common usage, but the writer must have known.

  • Dave

    Sam, you are right on with you’re explanation! Nimrod was a Great Hunter but a Hunter of men. Before God means he boldly, ignorantly taunted and did this in defiance of God. He helped plunge man further into sin and thought he could could build a tower to reach the Heavens. When God had enough of this foolishness destroyed the tower and city and caused them to be confounded by confusing the one language world. This leading to the many languages of today caused the people to flee the area and they spread out across the land. There for, a Nimrod can be rendered to a foolish, idiot that thought himself a great man would soon come to know the Greater Power of the Almighty God and the example was set for all men should give reverence to the only true God.

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