Occasionally I see someone online make a particular insulting comment: "What a maroon!" When I am particularly lucky, I will see another person put forth an indignant defense (thanks to Dan of Tinyblog for the illustrative example) of the term "Maroon". Maroons, we are reminded, were free blacks who formed communities throughout the Carribean and Americas, most notably in the Great Dismal Swamp and Florida. These people were bravely attempting to set up a parallel existance to antebellum American society! They fought in the Seminole War, the only Indian war that ended without a peace treaty! How can we use the term "Maroon" as an insult? The problem is that while all these things are true, they have very little relevance to someone quoting Bugs Bunny mangling the English language. It’s a case study in how associations are not always apparent to one’s audience. Language drifts. Bugs is also apparently responsible for a semantic transformation I’ve always wondered about. The Book of Genesis states that Nimrod was "a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD." For a variety of historical and linguistic reasons, Nimrod, the founder of Nineveh (best known as Jonah’s destination when he had his unfortunate run-in with the whale), came to be associated with tyranny in medieval traditions. He appears, cast as a babbling giant, in Dante’s Inferno and as a symbol of tyranny in Paradise Lost.
If "nimrod" meant "hunter" or "tyrant", how did it come to mean "dingbat"? (The insulting meaning of "dingbat" is itself a recent invention, taken from a comic strip by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame; Herriman borrowed a word for typographic decorations as the family name for the hapless protagonists of his pre-Krazy work.) There’s some dispute about the answer, but reputable sources attribute the meaning to Elmer Fudd; Bugs called the poor little nimrod a poor little nimrod, and people realized what a wonderful term of opprobrium it would make. The word doesn’t seem to have been intended as a malapropism — Bugs said things like "nin-cow-poop", but he used "nimrod" with the correct meaning. It’s just a happy accident that it was taken up as a synonym for "numbskull", the perfect word for when "A nice kid, but a little dumb" doesn’t convey the proper depth of feeling.