Who Gave Birth to the Word Nerd?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 30 2011 12:38 PM

Who Gave Birth to the Word Nerd?

1314721993
Photograph courtesy of Digital Vision.

Yet another dispatch from the fascinating world of slang evolution: In the Boston Globe, linguist and Slate contributor Ben Zimmer sleuths out the origins of the word "nerd."

Simon Pegg, who’s been promoting his autobiography Nerd Do Well, has apparently been spreading untruths about this most sturdy and sonically evocative put-down. The actor says it’s short for ne’er-do-well—both of which are terms, he says, that describe "someone on the fringe of society." However, this "seemingly authoritative claim lacks even a shred of historical evidence," writes Zimmer.

Advertisement

Other theories that have been floated, but dismissed: that it’s a reference to famous 1930s’ ventriloquist dummy Mortimer Snerd; that it’s drunk spelled backwards (since since a true knurd is far too studious to ever get inebriated, and is therefore the inverse of a drunk); and—my personal favorite—that it’s a portmanteau of nut and turd.

Zimmer's article runs through a bunch of other amusing hypotheses. He gives some wary credence to the theory that the fantastical nerd in Dr. Seuss’s 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo gave rise to the insult, though he notes that that would mean the term had a very quick adoption: The first known appearance of the word came in a 1951 Newsweek article that cited it as an example of contemporary teenspeak. But in the end, Zimmer concludes that there probably isn't a single, unambiguous source for the term.

The reasons for nerd's longevity, though, seem somewhat clearer: It's probably due to its brevity—a key characteristic of slang words that stick around, as Juliet Lapidos noted in Slate a few weeks ago—though it lacks the "back-of-the-mouth" noises that characterize other tenacious slang words, like cool and booze. In this case, however, the nasal, front-of-the-mouth sound probably helped cement nerd's place on the linguistic landscape: After all, you can’t help but sneer when you call someone a nerd.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 5:19 PM Washington’s Acting Roles
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.