The Nerd Corner
A Brief History of the Nerd
I've always objected to words like "nerd" and "geek" being applied to computer types. While I still don't like the connotations of "geek", I've recently decided that "nerd" isn't too bad, given its origins. This page is part of my new "Take back the nerd!" campaign. If we have to be called by some epithet, we could do a lot worse than a word that goes back to Dr. Seuss.
According everything I've been able to discover, the word "nerd" first appeared in 1950 in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo*:
I found out about this passage from the American Heritage Dictionary (AHED). Their entry for the word "nerd" contains a short article on the word's history. The next appearance of the word that they cite is in the "ABC for SQUARES" column in the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail. Their definition reads:
"Nerd -- a square, any explanation needed?"The final appearance cited by AHED is Current Slang (1970), where it is spelled "nurd":
"Nurd, someone with objectionable habits or traits.... An uninteresting person, a 'dud.'"This spelling is interesting due to a second derivation that was brought to my attention by my colleague Erich Weinstein in June of 1995 when I was creating this page. An article that Erich had recently read claimed that "nurd" derives from "knurd", which is "drunk" spelled backwards. According to this article, "knurd" was used to poke fun at someone who doesn't drink. Erich couldn't find the article he read, but recently (November '97) someone pointed me to a reference in the Jargon File citing an article in IEEE Spectrum article (4/95, page 16) that came out at the right time to be the one he read.
The Jargon File dismisses the drunk/knurd origin as "a bogus folk etymology" and I am inclined to agree. However, students and graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seem particularly convinced of this origin and a couple of corespondents have claimed that the word was coined at RPI and was in common usage by 1964 or 1965. So far, at least, I haven't seen any documentation of this origin, but perhaps it exists at RPI. I will continue to look into this. If anyone out there can document this origin, please send me e-mail.
In the last year or two my request for e-mail on this has netted me no solid documentation, but it has come up with a couple of useful bits of oral tradition and folk etymology:
So far, they're all based on personal memories and what "everyone knows" and take the term back to the early 60's (although the joke is somewhat older and is used in the reverse sense, if you will, in that it is applied to a drunk). Given that "nerd" was well enough established to be cited in "ABC for SQUARES" in 1957, "knurd" could still be derived as a pun on "nerd". So, if you've got any solid documentation on "knurd", keep those cards and letters coming, boys and girls.
Another correspondent, Randy, who sent me e-mail in response to this page just after it was cited in Entertainment Weekly gives another possible origin of the term using the "nurd" spelling. He first encountered the word in the late 1960s. He was told it had originated several years earlier at the summer clinics for high school debaters at Harvard University, where it was a disparaging acronym, ostensibly standing for Novice UnReliable Debater. E.g., "He shows promise, but his partner is a NURD."
Personally, I think that this usage could explain the appearance of the "nurd" spelling in Current Slang in 1970, but I don't think it explains the origin of the word itself. In fact, the acronym is rather forced. The natural abbreviation for "Novice Unreliable Debater" is N.U.D. and the use of the R suggests intentional punning on a pre-existing word, "nurd" or "nerd", and we know that "nerd" as a synonym for "square" goes back to at least 1957.
It seems likely that the N.U.R.D. and drunk/knurd variants both contributed to the spread and longevity of the word and to the multiplicity of spellings but given the 1957 citation with the "nerd" spelling, they cannot be seen as the origin of the word. The best candidate for that remains Dr. Seuss.
April 2003 addendumIn the last few months a couple of people have written to me to contribute to the story.
The latest indicates that science fiction author Philip K. Dick claimed in 1973 to have coined the word, spelling it "nurd":
The letter doesn't indicate when Dick claims to have invented it, but his claim was made 3 years after the spelling appeared in Current Slang, and 16 years after "ABC for SQUARES" first defined "nerd". [Addendum: 22 years after the first appearance of "nerd" in Newsweek. See below.]
A couple of weeks ago, though, I got what's perhaps the most tantalizing origin story from Peter. He suggests that the term originated at the Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories in Ottawa. Northern Electric, now called Nortel, is Canada's equivalent of Western Electric in the US. Their first R&D lab, called the Special Products Division was founded in 1937. Plastic pocket protectors were invented in Chicago in 1947, and the N.E. R&D labs were established in 1959, he points out, and concludes by saying,
Now I 'know' that somewhere out there is a picture of one of these Northern Electric R&D boys wearing the white shirt, sleeves rolled up, black thick framed glasses and a pocket protector with 'N.E.R.D. Labs' printed right on it... I've seen pictures of my father (sans glasses) in a General Electric lab of that vintage 1955-1960 with a similar pocket protector. It will be found... and I will send it to you. ;-)
He paints a nice picture here, but sadly it remains pretty speculative. Clearly R&D activities and departments had existed at Northern Electric for more than a decade at the time Dr. Seuss used the term, but the earliest date that the actual name "Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories" is documented so far is 9 years after "If I ran the Zoo" and 2 years after "nerd" was documented in "ABCs for Squares".
I'd love to see solid documentation of the "N.E.R.D. Labs" acronym being used back in the 40s, especially if it came in the form of a picture featuring a NERD Labs pocket protector. The image is just too perfect. But for now it remains just a wonderfully creative suggestion. The documentation still favors Dr. Seuss, I'm afraid.
Keep those cards and letters coming, boys and girls. Even though I haven't seen any solid evidence that the Dr. Seuss origin is wrong, we've found a lot of factors that probably helped the term become popular and that colored its meaning and variant spellings. And who knows, some day...
A very interesting piece of documentation has come my way. Mark Worden wrote
to forward me a message that he retrieved from the American Dialectical
Society archive of their ADS mailing list. The message is from someone at
Merriam-Webster, as follows:
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2000
If the Newsweek citation is accurate, then the usage of nerd as "square" can be traced back to within a year of the publication of If I Ran the Zoo. While it would still be possible for Seuss's word to have made its way into the vernacular, it would have to do so exceptionally fast. It's also interesting that this story reports the word as appearing in Detroit, just across the border from Windsor, Ontario. This would make sense if the N.E. R&D origin were true. A photo of a Northern Electric nerd has become even more desirable.
I have yet to been won over from the Dr Seuss explanation, but it's getting close.
June 2004 addendum
RPI graduate, Prof. Dean Chatfield, wrote to draw my attention to the web page of RPI's humor magazine, the Bachelor
From: "Dean C. Chatfield"
This takes the documentation of the nurd spelling back to '65, about the time Karl was a student and remembers being told the drunk->nurd origin. Still, it's 10 years after the first "nerd" appearance in Newsweek, so I'm still leaning towards the Dr. Seuss origin, possibly in combination with the N.E.R&D origin. Additionally, it's worth noting that even at the putative site of the "Knurd" coinage, the earliest documented spelling is "nurd", without the K.
August 2005 addendum
I've received another report that cites a possibly traceable appearance of the "Knurd" spelling back to 1972 or earlier.
From: "Russell Smith"
I have to disagree a bit with Russell, though. In the Newsweek reference we have solid documentation back to 1951, at least 20 years before his Knurd poster. The Bachelor back cover, takes the Nurd spelling back to 1965, about seven years before the poster. So, his poster his entirely compatible with the notion that the original spelling was "nerd", and that it transformed over the years to "nurd" and finally to "knurd". Still, any bit of the story is valuable and as more evidence shows up, his poster may fit into the story differently.
November 2005 Addendum
I recently received the following speculation, which I report with a certain trepidation, because while imaginative, its hypothesis is spun from whole cloth and not from any evidence. Such notions, when they catch on can easily become the sort of folk etymology that plagues endeavors such as the one central to this page. But in the spirit of open inquiry I present the following:
From: "Mark Largent"
At the very least Mark and Seigel's relatives have a point in noting that in the 30's, when Jerry Seigel was growing up, the word 'nerd' was not in common parlance, though it clearly was in the 70's when "Happy Days" was written, and was growing in use in the 50's as the 1951 and '57 citations make clear.
On the other hand, I don't find the origin all that compelling, not merely because entirely speculative, but because it does not seem to fit the style of 50's slang and neologisms. The middle of the twentieth century, thanks first to jazz and then to the beats, was a time of more poetic slang. It was time when a guy'd go cuisin' for a buisin' and get fed a knuckle sandwich for playin' back seat bingo with another guy's chick. That's not to say that there weren't slang terms that were shortened forms of larger words. A nerd might well have been called a spaz, short for spastic or given to spasms, but shortening to the final syllable just doesn't have a real 50's feel to me.
The slang of my early childhood (I was born between when Gerald McGrew first uttered the term and Newsweek reported hearing it in Detroit) tended to show off, and so you had the rhyming of cruisin' for a bruisin' and the imagery of the knuckle sandwich, and ritualized exchanges of the "see you later, alligator"/"In a while crocodile" sort. Last syllable shortening makes me think of more recent slang ('tard of the last decade or two, and such). Still, anything's possible.
Created: June 14,1995
|| Brons's Home Page | The Nerd's Corner Index ||
* The passage from "If I Ran the Zoo" and the picture of the Nerd which accompanies it are both Copyright © 1950, 1978, Theodor Seuss Geisel.