It’s 1970-something, and I’m watching Looney Tunes. Hilarity ensues. The hunted escapes the sights of the ill-suited hunter that is Elmer Fudd. Always the failed hunter, Fudd tries and tries again. The prey, unscathed, cooly calls Fudd a “nimrod.” I’m rolling on the floor, clutching my sides, laughing out loud. “Nimrod,” I think, “I’m going to call my brother a nimrod.”
ELMER FUDD, NIMROD, AFGHANISTAN… HANG WITH ME
Fast-forward about 35 years to 2012. I’m on assignment for a Twin Cities PBS project in Afghanistan – and I’m on a huge base in Kandahar. It’s my first day in-country, and I’m getting my feet under me. I will eventually end up in Zabul Province to begin filming a documentary, but for now I’m adjusting to the time, sights and sounds in the relative comfort of Kandahar Air Force Base. In the meantime, I figure I should do some work, so I interview a couple of the Minnesota soldiers working on the base.
The first soldier I interview is Bryan Pederson. When he tells me where he’s from, before I can say, “Wait, where?” he smiles and beats me to the punchline. He is from Nimrod, Minnesota. This is his second deployment. He’s in logistics and figures out how to get things done – and his Nimrod origin story doesn’t really matter. In the end, everyone is from somewhere, and Bryan just happens to be from a small town with a name that literally floored me as a kid.
While interviewing Bryan near a shipping container filled with supplies he procured, did I ask Bryan about the origin of his hometown’s name? If I did, I don’t remember. Because he and his fellow soldiers were responsible for my safety while I was in Afghanistan, I probably held back. Poking fun at a person’s hometown isn’t a way to endear oneself to another, and Captain Pederson is bigger than me. Quite a bit bigger than me.
WHAT DOES NIMROD EVEN MEAN?
Good question. We’ll start with a definition:
“Nimrod” refers to an inept person, the vessel Earnest Shackleton used on an ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, and/or a skilled hunter appearing in the book of Genesis.
For the sake of everyone involved, I will assume Nimrod, Minnesota, did not come by its name due to the bungled exploits of an inept person. Also, I would bet it’s not named for Shackleton’s ship since Nimrod, in north central Minnesota, is about as far away from the sea as one can physically get. So that leaves the hunter in Genesis as the basis of the theory behind the name.
Makes sense. The visual depiction of Nimrod is that of a muscle-bound, tough-looking guy. By all appearances, naming a town after this fellow is a pretty good call.
A BIBLICAL SCHOLAR
Back in 2012, had I either been a biblical scholar or had fast access to Wikipedia, I could have wowed Bryan with the tidbit that Nimrod is not just the sophomoric insult it has become – but rather, it’s a name with biblical connections. Nimrod is described in Genesis 10:8–12 as, “The first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”
As I read this passage, I now see the actual humor in what the Looney Tunes writers did. They used sarcasm and a biblical reference to bend the meaning of a word. I don’t remember the exact scene, but I can imagine Fudd was firing his double-barreled shotgun and missed his target over and over again. Sarcastically, his prey, says something like, “Nice shooting, Nimrod.” Kids like me roll. Parents – make that parents with a knowledge of Genesis – coyly acknowledge the writing of the Looney Tunes staff of the late 1940s while their children take the word for the ultimate insult.
A LOONEY TUNES SCHOLAR
Writer and historian Ken Zurksi examines the word “nimrod” a bit further. In the article, “The Nimrod Effect: How a Cartoon Bunny Changed the Meaning of a Word Forever,” I learn Shackleton named his boat The Nimrod because, at the time of his expedition in the early 1900s, strength and courage were the core tenets of the word. In the same article, Zurski writes about the Looney Tunes animated short “A Wild Hare” as the original source in which the utterance of “nimrod” changed the meaning of the word forever.
It was Bugs Bunny. Or was it? I watched the film twice (for work), and Bugs never says “nimrod.” What? There goes the basis for this exploration of Nimrod. Or does it?
GOING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
There are dozens of references on the Internet that state the meaning of the word “nimrod” changed in 1940 when Bugs called Fudd a nimrod in “A Wild Hare.” Could it be the Internet lied to me? Not believing that the Internet is full of lies and liars, I forge on.
Not yet willing to give up on this Looney Tunes bit, I end up on a few different message boards. The administrators of these boards are asking readers for instances in which Bugs calls Fudd a nimrod. They don’t exist.
Have the previous authors who have written about Bugs calling Fudd a nimrod been lying? Not necessarily. They may have fallen for the Mandela Effect. Did Elmer ever get called a nimrod? Yes. Was Elmer hunting Bugs in many cartoons? Yes. Therefore, Bugs calls Elmer a nimrod. Nope. Previous writers just had a false memory about how and when the word was used.
ENTER DUCK, DUCK, DAFFY DUCK
Digging through message boards, I find that Daffy Duck is the character calling Fudd a nimrod. It’s not Bugs Bunny. Seems to be an honest mistake. It’s the same franchise, same theme music, same premise, just a different smart aleck character. It occurs 5 minutes and 36 seconds into the 1948 cartoon titled “What Makes Daffy Duck?” Give it a watch and imagine yourself watching this after school on an old clunker of a TV, with no remote control and rabbit years, you ears hearing the word “nimrod” for the first time. Now imagine the joy you’d get in using that insult on your brother.
If your brother was smart, he would simply say, “Thank you. I am quite strong and I am a great hunter.” Instead, he probably just slugs you in the shoulder.
BACK TO BRYAN AND THE CITIZENS OF NIMROD
Do Bryan Pederson and all others who have called Nimrod, Minnesota, home (there aren’t too many – the 2010 census reveals a population of 69) have Looney Tunes to thank for the smirks and chuckles they see when they tell someone where they’re from? Perhaps. Would the meaning of the word have changed over time without Looney Tunes? It seems likely – it is a funny-sounding word, after all. Would Nimrodians of Minnesota, Texas, Oregon, Montana and Arkansas (because our fair state is not the only one with a town called Nimrod) prefer to have people think of a powerful hunter with strength and courage, instead of ineptitude when people think of their town? It’s likely.
If you’re looking for a quintessentially small town-Minnesota activity, consider a Labor Day visit. Nimrod rolls out the welcome mat for its annual Labor Day bash, where bull riding and live music top the agenda of events.
To get to Nimrod from Saint Paul, it’s pretty much a straight shot 170 miles north on Highway 10. From Brainerd, Nimrod is about 50 miles to the north and west. If you’re in Sebeka, Nimrod is just 10 miles to the east.
The Crow Wing River dissects the town and, once you’ve arrived in this destination with just under 70 residents, you’ll be met with a small park with picnic tables set alongside the banks of the river, and a bar and grill that is open for lunch and dinner. Aside from that, Google Maps indicates there is a Lutheran Church, a campground and a seemingly well-kept ball field within the city limits.
If you stop in, drop this Cliff Clavin-esque, little-known “where in the world did the name Nimrod come from” fact on a few people. I’d love to know how they react.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
Love falling down the rabbit hole? Twin Cities Producer Kevin Dragseth has a keen interest in uncovering stories that are “tangentially Minnesota” in nature. In a recent historical adventure, he wondered: Can Minnesota lay claim to both King Kong and Super Mario?
On that note, Minnesota did play a certain outsized role in the ever-so-uncomfortable-by-today’s-standards Indianist Movement, in which artists of all stripes appropriated Native American culture. Discover more about “Minnesota’s own grand racist opera.”
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