[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]
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 describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”
The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”
[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]
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.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.
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 Green’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.
We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.