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History of the word Nerd

February 21st, 2007

The word “nerd” first appeared in Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo[1], published in 1950, where it simply names one of Seuss’s many comical imaginary animals. (The narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too” for his imaginary zoo.)

The use of the “nerd” as slang goes back at least to 1951, when it was reported as a relatively new usage in Detroit, Michigan first by Newsweek[2] and then the St. Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Press[3]. By the early 1960s, usage of the term spread through the United States[4] and as far as Scotland[5]. Throughout this first decade, the definition was consistent—a dull person, a synonym of “square”, “drip” and “scurve”. During the next decade, it took on connotations of bookishness as well as social ineptitude, and the spelling “nurd” began to appear. The University of South Dakota’s journal, Current Slang, contains four entries for “nurd” and one for “nerd” in 1970 and 1971. [6][7][8]

The first recorded use of the “nurd” spelling appeared in 1965, in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Bachelor[9]. Oral tradition at RPI holds that the word was coined there, spelled as “knurd” (”drunk” spelled backwards), to describe those who studied rather than partied. This usage predates a similar coinage of “knurd” by author Terry Pratchett, but has not been documented prior to the “nurd” spelling in 1965.

Other theories of the word’s origin include a variation on Mortimer Snerd, the name of Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy and the Northern Electric Research and Development labs in Ontario, suggesting images of engineers wearing pocket protectors with the acronym N.E.R.D. printed on them, and a claim by Philip K. Dick to having coined “nurd”.[10] The term itself was used heavily in the American 1974 – 1984 television comedy Happy Days which was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid-1950s.

The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the word is an alteration of a 1940s term nert meaning “stupid or crazy person,” itself an alteration of nut.

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