Accidental Shifts in Meaning
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.