This week we'll enjoy seven words, some familiar and some not, with etymologies that range from the curiously odd to the completely bizarre.
nimrod – slang: an silly or insensitive jerk who is a petty annoyance
– Anna Jane Grossman, Loving Tribute, New York Post, September 12, 2004
Anyone who leaves a cell phone on ‘ring’ while in a movie theater and then takes a call without leaving is seeking only to display his perceived stature. Such individuals are known by various appellations. 'Nimrod,' 'pinhead,' 'moron,' and the always appropriate 'jerk' come most readily to mind.
- Larry Simoneaux, American Daily, March 30, 2003
Most of us can’t sing, and shouldn’t sing. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. If you go to your nearby mall, you will undoubtedly encounter one deluded nimrodwho sings along to the piped-in Musak while you’re waiting in line for a cappuccino.
– Michael Ventre, Rub-a-dub-dub, some songs for the, er, shower, MSNBC, Aug. 18, 2004
How did "mighty hunter" acquire its slang meaning? From the cartoons: picture if you will Elmer Fudd, with his shotgun and hunting garb, futilely hunts Bugs Bunny in the cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. Bugs, with classical precision, comments ironically comments, "Neh, I couldn't do that to the little nimrod." (wave file) An audience that didn't know the word would take it for the amused put-down that Bugs obviously meant. From there, the ironic sense acquired its own life.
-- Your humble wordcrafter drafted this definition, since AHD's definition seems to a poor match to the usages noted below. No other on-line dictionary gives the slang meaning.]
-- A few sites on the web dispute this etymology. I disagree, and will comment when this goes to archives. But for now, this seems enough for our word-of-the-day readers.This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
In his first work to achieve fame (The Engima Variations), Edward Elgar wrote a piece about his friend Jaeger. He called it Nimrod and it is probably the most famous of the variations.
My wife and I, forty years ago yesterday, were married to the strains of Nimrod!
You can find out more here - including a picture of Nimrod himself.
Re: Nimrod meaning "numbskull": the Bugs Bunny theory
Bugs first appeared in 1938. I don't have the date of the episode where he used "nimrod", but my sense is that he used it in many episodes. The first print-use I find is 1939, with the same sort of double meaning as Bugs has.¹
Some websites, apparently copying each other, dispute the "Bugsian origin" by saying that Jesse Sheidlower has found two cites that predate Bugs. However, I find no such claim by Mr. Sheidlower himself. He is quite reliable, and a note has been sent to him. But let's take it further.
Others argue that these Bugs episodes could not be the source of this sense of "nimrod", because the sense did not become common until much later, in the late 1980s or early 1990s. They are probably correct that it did not have much 1930s impact, since it is not mentioned in Mencken's work. But with all respect, I'd say that the later prevalence suggests that Bugs was the source. How could a minor 1930s usage, having died out, have suddenly revived fifty-odd years later, except via media-speak from the 1930s that remained in the public eye fifty years later?
Indeed, it looks like the Bugsian sense of "nimrod" revived precisely at a time Bugs himself was having a revival. In the 1980's his old cartoons were released on video, and he himself was a presenter at the 1987 Oscar Awards. When did his sense of "nimrod" come back into usage? The earliest I find is 1990, and indicates that the sense was not brand new.² You'll also find that usage in a 1994 mass-market movie, Pulp Fiction.³
My data is far from complete, but I conclude that Bug indeed brought the term into our language. Not in the 1930s, when the term didn't stick, but in the 1980s.
¹Lewis Copeland, Ten Thousand Jokes, Toasts and Stories (1939, reading the 1965 reprint), where item 6133 uses the word as Bugs does: "First Simple Nimrod-'Hey, don't shoot. Your gun isn't loaded.' His Partner-'Can't help that; the bird won't wait.'"
²Gordon Korman, Losing Joe's Place (1990): "As soon as a girl steps into a place like this," he told us as we sipped on our Cokes, "she divides all the guys into the nimrods and the cool people."
³John Travolta, as Vega: Jules, if you give that fuckin' nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I'm gonna shoot him on general principles.
dupe – verb: to deceive or swindle. noun: a person who is easily duped
This comes from a bird! The French word huppe means a certain small, elaborately crested bird, which we call the hoopoe. In Middle French the phrase du huppe ("of the hoopoe") became slang duppe, meaning a dupe, and passed into English with the same meaning.
Frankly, I'm betting that the French have a phrase tête du huppe (hoopoe-head) meaning "stupid", somewhat like our 'birdbrain'. One source seems to so indicate; can anyone confirm?
I welcome any input from those familiar with French, and they may be able to make something of these two items.
– Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Antoine
From a website in French, as translated by Google:
The French name derives from Latin upupa, it would have been given in correlation with the cry of the bird "oupoupa". Then, the name of huppe was compared to the peak of feather particular to this bird. On this subject, written Buffon: "Thérée, king de Thrace, having been metamorphosed in huppe following several horrors, and in particular after Progné, its wife, and Philomèle, his/her sister-in-law, had made serve on her table her Itys son whom they had put in parts, this unfortunate father could form of another cry only louse, louse, which, in Greek, means "where, where", as if it still had sought or redemandé his son."
Excellent research on "dupe."
The "d" shifts from "du huppe," to become part of the word.
Is there a general term for the shift we likewise see when "a napple" becomes "an apple," "a Naranja (sic)" becomes "an orange," "a napron (sic)" becomes "an apron" or "an eft" becomes "a newt?"
a napron <> an apron
this sort of "false division" is known linguistically as metanalysis.
In Madagascar, locals were taking European explorers though the rainforst. One of the locals, spotting a lemur in the trees, pointed to it and exclaimed 'indri', meaning, "Look!" or, "There it is!" The explorers mistook this as the name of the primate, now known as the indri.
Similar misunderstandings are claimed as the basis of several other animal names, such as kangaroo and llama, and several place names, such as Canada, Istanbul, Luzon, Nome (in Alaska), Senegal and Yucatan. Those stories are disputed, but indri appears to be the real thing.
indri – the largest of the all of the lemurs. It is the only lemur with vestigial tail, and it is severely endangered. Picture here.
Those stories are disputed
My favorite, though not an animal name, is the river Avon. Avon means 'water' or 'river' in some early Brythonic dialect of Celtic. There's another placename where I live. El Cerrito which means 'the hill' in Spanish. There's an El Cerrito Hill, though it's been renamed to Albany Hill.
My favorite is the La Brea Tar Pits. La Brea means 'the tar'.
A dumbbell is a fine tool for exercise, but what does it have to do with a bell?
A church's bell ringer would pull down on a rope, causing the bell to swing and toll the hours. Since bells were heavy, bell ringers developed great upper body strength.
Their work also required a good deal of practice. (I presume this was, in part, to learn to time the pulls to match the bell's swing-period.) Apprentice bell ringers practiced on a rope and pulley apparatus that mimicked the action but which used a deadweight rather than a bell, thus saving money and avoiding noise pollution. In other words, it was a bell that was silent, or "dumb", and quite naturally came to be a "dumbbell". Gentlemen in the 1700s adopted the same apparatus for healthy exercise, and "dumbbell" became associated with weights for exercise.
Some idle thoughts: What I've given you is the standard story, and it's interesting enough. But isn't it odd that the word first appears so late as 1711, though church bells are centuries older? If bell ringers needed a training apparatus, surely one was built, used, and given a name long before 1711.
The first known use of the word is by Joseph Addison in The Spectator of Thursday, July 12, 1711, copied below. Addison seems to be making an implied pun that the exercise dumbbell renders the ladies silent; that is, it renders the belles dumb. His very next paragraph also makes a witty analogy between an exercise method and the larger world. An idle speculation: could it conceivably be that Addison concocted the word 'dumbbell' as a term that would describe the apparatus and also make his word-play? That would certainly explain why no prior use of the word has been found.
When I was some Years younger than I am at present, I used to employ myself in a more laborious Diversion, which I learned from a Latin Treatise of Exercises that is written with great Erudition: It is there called the skiomachia, or the fighting with a Man's own Shadow, and consists in the brandishing of two short Sticks grasped in each Hand, and loaden with Plugs of Lead at either End. This opens the Chest, exercises the Limbs, and gives a Man all the Pleasure of Boxing, without the Blows. I could wish that several Learned Men would lay out that Time which they employ in Controversies and Disputes about nothing, in this Method of fighting with their own Shadows. It might conduce very much to evaporate the Spleen, which makes them uneasy to the Publick as well as to themselves.
The grapefruit's origin is a mystery. It appeared suddenly, as if from nowhere, first noted around 1750 in the Barbados. It was long thought to be a mutation of the pummelo, which is of similar size. We now know that is a hybrid of the pummelo and the sweet orange.
The name "grapefruit" originated in Jamaica around 1810, but it is a ridiculous name. This fruit has nothing to do with the grape, is vastly different in size and color and every other way, and grows on trees rather than (grape)vines. Then why this name? The usual claim is that it arose because the fruit supposedly grows in clusters, like grapes. Some at least have the good grace to admit that this is speculation [AHD: "Probably so called because the fruit grows in clusters"], but some drop the word "probably". None I've found gives the slightest support for the theory.
The theory strikes me as nonsense. It implies that the fruit was named by someone who'd seen it growing on the tree – but anyone who'd seen it would know that it does not grow in clusters. Like any other citrus, its fruits happen to be close together in some parts of the tree and spread out in others (see here and here). Where they happen to be close, leaves mix amid them (unlike in grapes), and the branching structure is completely unlike that of grapes. If you've seen it on the tree, you can't possibly think it grows in grape-like clusters.
Ciardi proposes another theory. The pummelo's botanical name is Citrus grandi, meaning "great citrus [fruit]." It would be natural to call the new pummelo variety a "greatfruit". But try saying that name a few times, with its consonant cluster. It sounds like "grapefruit", unless you make an extreme effort to enunciate, and it would easily have morphed to that form.
This suggestion is completely speculative, without attestation, but seems much more reasonable than the equally speculative "grape cluster" theory.This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
Anyone here a fan of The Maltese Falcon? That's the source of today's word.
gunsel – a gunman in the criminal world; sometimes used to mean any hoodlum
Nothing could have prevented Richard Nixon from accepting that nomination. If God himself had showed up in Miami and denounced Nixon from the podium, hired gunsels from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President would have quickly had him arrested for disturbing the peace. – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail
– Erle Stanley Gardner, Getting Away with Murder, The Atlantic, Vol. 215 No. 1 (1965)
Movie (screenplay; final scene a bit different):
Spade (violently angry): (He tosses his cigar away in disgust) Now think again and think fast. I told that gunsel of yours you'd have to talk to me before you're through. I'm telling you now, you'll talk to me today or you are through! (Throwing his drink to the floor.) What are you wasting my time for? I can get along without you! And another thing: Keep that gunsel out of my way when you're makin' up your mind! I'll kill him if you don't, I'll kill him!
I'd promised you "etymologies that range from the curiously odd to the completely bizarre". Bizarre itself is an odd term, for it means very different things in different languages. In Spanish bizzaro means "strong; handsome; soldierly; gallant; brave", but in English and French (and apparently Italian too) the like term means "odd, fantastic". Does bizarre have a typical, unremarkable etymology, or does it come from a scandal of incest, infidelity, infanticide and intrigue among the elite of 1790s Virginia? Doubtless you'd like to hear about the scandal first.
In 1789, when Julia and Nancy Randolph were 16 and 14, their mother died at Tuckahoe, the family estate. On Christmas Day that year Julia, married her 19-year old cousin Richard and went to live with him at his family's Virginia plantation, named Bizarre. Within the year Nancy's homelife became intolerable when father married a girl barely older than she, and by early 1791 she went to live in Bizarre with the pregnant Julia, Richard, and Richard's eligible brothers Jack and Theodorick.
All three brothers – including Richard, who perhaps found a pregnant wife less attractive – acted as young men sometimes will in the company of a pretty young lass whose motto is "I must be sought". In time Theo and Nancy became engaged; Jack became enraged (and became Nancy's lifelong bitter enemy); and Theo then became mysteriously ill, lingered for months, and died in February 1792, a few days after his 21st birthday.
Nancy liked to use such words as 'tautology' and 'ecclairissement' and she sometimes used them properly, but she seems not to have learned the meaning of 'chastity,' for in 1792 an ominous swelling of the belly distended Nancy's pleasing form. On October 1 her nighttime screams woke the household. The ladies rushed to her door and managed but a peek at blood-stained sheets before their ministrations were discouraged by Richard. Rumors spread immediately that the corpse of a white baby had been found buried nearby.
Richard was arrested for "feloniously murdering a child said to be borne of Nancy Randolph." It is unclear whether Nancy was also charged. Richard had excellent and prominent attorneys and, despite abundant public displays of an affection between Nancy and Richard that was more than brotherly/sisterly – and despite the revelation that Nancy had discussed abortifacients with Patsy Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter – the charges against Richard were dismissed. Whereupon Richard stiffed his lawyers on their legal fees.
As you can imagine, this story was quite the talk, and was called 'The Bizarre Murder'.
The word 'bizarre' appears in English long before Nancy Randolph. But was it a recognized word then, and if so, what did it mean? Was it the Spanish meaning (brave, soldierly, etc.), which then changed due to the Bizarre scandal? Or did it already have the French meaning of "weird"?
The authorities say the latter. And yet, "weird" would seem an odd name to give a plantation. Also, a reader's letter to Bill Safire states that English dictionaries predating Nancy's scandal give only meaning of "brave" or "handsome", much more suitable for a plantation-name.
It should be easy to check those dictionaries for pre-Nancy usage. Few are not available to me, but I do note that Bailey's dictionary (1772 edition) does not include the word at all. My very tentative guess is that our meaning of 'bizarre' comes from the 1790s Randolph scandal.
Acknowledgement: I liberally quote Bill Kauffman's review of a recent book on the scandal.This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
If accuracy is a virtue, the Spanish word is bizarro or bizarra, depending on the gender of the noun it modifies.