According to the OED, the word English Nimrod is derived from the Hebrew, where in Genesis 10:8–9 he is described as ‘a mighty one in the earth’ and ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord’. It is apparently still a popular name in Israel.

This would match the OED’s definitions:

  1. A tyrannical ruler; a tyrant. Obs.
  2. A great hunter; one who is fond of, or given to, hunting.

But you never hear it used that way any longer. Now it’s become some sort of slang that means something more like dunce or idiot or jerk.

While I doubt that PETA was involved, I still would like to know what the exact history is that lies behind this new anti-hunter motif?

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    leanleft.com/2004/02/23/the-etymology-of-nimrod "probably from the phrase poor little Nimrod, used by the cartoon character Bugs Bunny to mock the hapless hunter Elmer Fudd" – MetaEd Dec 20 '13 at 19:19
  • @MετάEd “Probably” isn’t very strong. There should be some way to plot this on a graph. – tchrist Dec 20 '13 at 19:22
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    "1933 B. Hecht & G. Fowler Great Magoo iii. i. 183 He's in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won't let her alone for a second." This suggestions the evolution of senses was skilful hunterhunterfailed hunteridiot. – Gareth Rees Dec 20 '13 at 19:24
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    The practice of nicknaming someone in an ironic fashion is much older than this citation. Hecht/Fowler are doing it; Bugs is doing it. Perhaps the interesting question is when did "nimrod" take on a life of its own, independent of the Biblical meaning? – MetaEd Dec 20 '13 at 19:27
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    I'm not convinced there's any "anti-hunter" sentiment in the (limited) currency of forms like Don't be such a nimrod!. More likely just people conflating two relatively unfamiliar words - nimrod/nincompoop. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '13 at 19:51

OED online has a wider second definition than that given in the question:

2. A great or skilful hunter (freq. ironic); any person who likes to hunt. Also fig.

This "frequently ironic" may be the transitional clue between the great hunter of old and the stupid or contemptible person of today, first quoted by the OED in 1933.

The 2008 New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says:

nimrod noun a fool, a stupid person, a bungler. Jonathan Lighter writes that ‘currency of the term owes much to its appearance in a 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon in which Bugs Bunny refers to the hunter Elmer Fudd as "poor little Nimrod"’. It is not clear that watchers of the cartoon understood the C18 sense of the word as ‘a great hunter’, but the term has stuck US, 1932

The OED's 1933 is somewhat ambiguous, it could be referring to a bad hunter:

1933 B. Hecht & G. Fowler Great Magoo iii. i. 183 He's in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won't let her alone for a second.

Their next idiot quotation isn't until 1963. However, etymonline.com isn't convinced by Bugs Bunny changing the meaning:

It came to mean "geek, klutz" by 1983 in teenager slang, for unknown reasons. (Amateur theories include its occasional use in "Bugs Bunny" cartoon episodes featuring rabbit-hunting Elmer Fudd as a foil; its possible ironic use, among hunters, for a clumsy member of their fraternity; or a stereotype of deer hunters by the non-hunting population in the U.S.)

As it happens, Nimrod is also given as one amongst two whole-column-lengths of synonyms for penis in Farmer and Henley's 1891 Slang and its analogues past and present.

The 1902 edition defines it:

NIMROD, subs, (colloquial). — I. A hunting-man ; a sportsman.

  1. subs, (venery). — The penis. [Because 'a mighty hunter']. See CREAMSTICK and PRICK.

Perhaps not relevant, but from the same volume:

NIMENOG, subs. (old). — A fool. Also NIGMENOG.—B. E. (1696).

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    "It is not clear that watchers of the cartoon understood the C18 sense of the word as ‘a great hunter’". This understated comment nails it. The word took on a life of its own when it was heard and adopted by hundreds of thousands of children who heard it over and over without any idea that it was ironic. – MetaEd Jan 16 '14 at 0:08
  • And just which sort of venery might that be referring to, the one related to venison or the one related to Venus — or both? :) – tchrist May 8 '14 at 4:24

Nimrod, in the Old Testament of the Bible, was the great-grandson of Noah and the 1st King of Babylon who built the Tower of Babel. He was known as a great hunter.

The name morphed in the 19th century when Charles Apperley wrote The Life of a Sportsman in England, using the pen name Nimrod. He was a poor fox hunter who kept falling off his horse into "the drink," and the name Nimrod came to be known as a klutz.

  • It would be great if you would add some quotes or references. – Alan Carmack Dec 6 '16 at 0:56

I can add that Nimrod was understood by high school students in Southern California as meaning "idiot" by 1963, when I learned the word only with that meaning.

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    Can you back up your answer with evidence? – Ronan Aug 19 '15 at 8:26
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    Maybe the answer was not well-suited for this arena; however, am I the only one who thinks it ridiculous to ask one to provide evidence for his personal experience? – Rick Buczynski Jul 17 '16 at 13:54
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    I can attest that I also heard the term during the 60s (in Kentucky) with the same sense. – Hot Licks Dec 5 '16 at 22:59

My understanding of the source of the "idiot" definition for nimrod is the small town of Nimrod in Minnesota. It had a state run insane asylum. Locals in the area use to call people that were acting crazy nimrods.

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    That would be the First State Asylum for the Insane, later renamed to Anoka State Hospital. Do you have a reference for the rest of that? – tchrist Mar 3 '17 at 20:15

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