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?

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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.

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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.