The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jun 3, 2021

A Classic Example of Semantic Change (Thanks to Bugs Bunny)

 I have the privilege of teaching "Hermeneutics" twice each year, and when I do, I always spend a significant amount of time focusing on word studies, specifically how the intersection of semantic range (various meanings) and context determine a word's meaning at a particular point in the text.

I also discuss why we should not rely on etymology to determine meaning, precisely because languages evolve and words change meaning. A classic biblical example is James 3:1 in the King James, "be not many masters," which does not refer to being a slave-owner or having hired servants. Instead, the word is didaskaloi, so "be not many teachers." The problem here is not with the King James translators, because 400+ years ago the semantic range for "master" was broader and included "teacher." That is, after all, why we study for our "Master's Degree." But words change, and many of the words in older translations do not mean today what they meant back then (as well documented by my friend Mark Ward in his book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible).

Now, none other than Reader's Digest has given us an excellent example of possible semantic change in its most recent issue (May 2021). I quote it in full here (p. 122):

    "It wasn't always rude to call someone a nimrod. In the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament), Nimrod was the name of an exceptional hunter, and nimrod would later refer to any hunter. So how did his name become an insult? One popular theory: Bugs Bunny often sarcastically called the bumbling Elmer Fudd 'Nimrod' in 1940s cartoons, teaching generations of Looney Tunes fans that it meant idiot."

There you have it folks: why Bugs Bunny is relevant for lexical semantics.

For a basic introduction to lexical semantics, see "The Meaning of Words (Part 1): Words and Concepts" and "The Meaning of Words (Part 2): Context and Semantic Range."


  1. Thanks for the shout-out!

    And that's a great example. What would you call that? I feel like I should know the technical term. Semantic shift? That feels too general. I want to say there's a term that is specific to this kind of change.

    1. How about "Social-Lexical Micro-Evolutionary Adaptation"? :)

  2. Love this...made me laugh so hard...I never thought about Nimrod that way

  3. I was thinking about how the word prodigal is used to mean a wayward child in common usage today. Some dictionaries have even added entries with that definition. I have asked a number of church folks what the word prodigal means and only one or two have known its actually definition.