The Grammarphobia Blog

Nerds of America

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show “Happy Days.” Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. “Happy Days” was on the air from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ‘50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in a draft revision dated 2003, defines “nerd” as an “insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person”; “a person who is boringly conventional or studious”; “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for the word in the OED is from an October 1951 article in Newsweek: “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” Sounds nerdlike to me!

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

I don’t recall hearing “nerd” during my school career, either, and I graduated from college in 1971. But I remember the type – the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t do drugs, didn’t party, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. I think they got the last laugh.

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