Who Gave Birth to the Word Nerd?

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

Who Gave Birth to the Word Nerd?

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.


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.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.