By Dr Oliver Tearle
What connects one of the biggest-selling authors in the world with the word ‘nerd’? This now-ubiquitous word – and a global American export almost as recognisable as Coca-Cola –was unknown to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, or Jack London, but it’s now established throughout the English-speaking world.
So where did word come from, and why are its origins so mysterious and hard to pin down? Let’s take a closer look at the origin or etymology of the word ‘nerd’.
We all know what ‘nerd’ means. A nerd is usually someone who takes being studious to excess: in high school, a nerd will be the first to leap with enthusiasm, or at least diligence, to the task of completing their homework. They are usually not particularly socially successful or popular, and may even be socially inept. We use the word nerd to refer to such a person, and the adjective nerdy can be applied to them.
But the origins of nerd are less easy to pin down. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the origin is ‘uncertain and disputed’. Nevertheless, there is a leading theory as to where nerd originated.
In 1950, Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-91), who became known to generations of children as Dr Seuss, published a children’s book named If I Ran the Zoo. In the book, which features ‘a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression’ (OED), a number of fictitious creatures are mentioned as potential additions to the titular zoo. These include a ‘Nerkle’ and, in the same line, a ‘Nerd’.
In other words, Dr Seuss used the word ‘Nerd’ as a nonsense term which he (seemingly) invented out of nowhere but his prolific imagination.
Was Seuss the source of the word we now use to refer to a studious and not especially popular person? Perhaps. Just one year after If I Ran the Zoo was published, in 1951, the word ‘nerd’ appeared in Newsweek, carrying the meaning we now attach to the word: ‘In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.’
Perhaps this was too hot on the heels of Dr Seuss’s book to make a direct collection likely. And why a ‘Nerd’ and not a ‘Nerkle’? What was it that drew people to that word in Seuss’s nonsense list?
So it may simply be coincidence, which – in hindsight – has hardened into direct correlation in the popular imagination. It simply seems too neat that, one year after Seuss coined the word out of nowhere, the first use of ‘nerd’ in the more familiar sense surfaced in the newspapers.
But the very neatness of it all is what makes it less, rather than more, likely that there is a connection.
Geisel, by the way, was a fascinating figure. As well as using the pseudonym Dr Seuss, he also wrote under the pen names Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. His books for children have sold over half a billion copies worldwide, making him one of the bestselling writers of all time.
Whenever he was stuck writing his books, he would reportedly go to a secret closet filled with hundreds of hats and wear them till the words came. When he wasn’t writing, he found time to invent a machine which he called the ‘Infantograph’, which predicts what a couple’s baby will look like.
So if the Dr Seuss link is merely a matter of coincidence, where might the word nerd have originated? Slang is a funny thing, and it can be difficult to pin down a neat origin-point or meaningful etymology for many slang words. They simply enter the common parlance – they somehow sound ‘right’ for the meaning they need to convey – and become part of the language through appealing to people and naturally taking on a life of their own.
Other theories, though, have been proposed. One suggestion is that nerd is modelled on turd, another derogatory term, but given the difference in vowels (why not nurd, in that case?), this also seems improbable. The same goes for the (even more fanciful) suggestion that the term arose as ‘back-slang’ for the word drunk, with the letters of that word being reversed to form knurd, a term for someone who was never drunk because they were so ‘square’ or unexciting.
Another theory sees a ventriloquist’s doll from the 1930s – a character named Mortimer Snerd – as the origin of the word. This has also been dismissed by etymologists.
In conclusion, then, the true origins of the word nerd remain shrouded in mystery, despite some colourful theories being proposed over the years.