Who Invented the Word Nerd?

Being a French, I’m sometimes a little confused about some English words. It’s not surprising, in every language, people just invent new words all the time. I’m also regularly confused when I’m listening to French people talking.

I started this blog as an exercise to just be better at writing in English. It makes sense that I’m starting to look into the vocabulary field. Let’s start with a weird one:

Who Created the Word Nerd?

In France, because of our frequent contact with American culture, we have adopted words like Geeks and Nerds, kind of. I suppose that The Big Bang Theory is also popular here.

Who knows? The thing is, I’m not sure what a nerd really is or, to be precise, what it originally meant.

As usual, I took a look at the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster:

  1. A person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests.
  2. A person preoccupied with or devoted to a particular activity or field of interest.
  3. An unstylish or socially awkward person.

It turned out that, like many weird words, we can trace the origin of “nerd” to none other than Dr. Seuss—aka Theodore Geisel. The first time someone read the word “nerd” was in the 1950 book “If I Ran the Zoo.”

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-troo
And bring back an It-kutch, a Preep and a Proo,
A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!

“If I Ran the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss (1950)

As the history goes, Newsweek reported a few months later that the word was used in Detroit as a synonym for drip or square. Another newspaper, one from Australia, also wrote about it in an article about the way American teenagers talked. It eventually spread throughout the Country during the decade, being accepted as slang to mock those “boring intellectuals.” Someone tracked the use of the word through the years if you want more occurrences.

American science-fiction author Philip K. Dick (Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) used nurd in 1973, an alternative spelling that some presumed to be a way to say turd, but differently. It seems that it didn’t take.

As for nerd, the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days” played a big part in its popularization. The famous leather-jacketed Fonzie, the ultimate cool guy with a big heart, used it as an insult.

Nerd vs Geek!

Nerd became synonymous with socially inept but brainy, but it also evolved to become less of an insult and more of a compliment of sorts. It’s not unlike the use of the word geek.

In fact, geek and nerd definitions seemed to have become quite similar as the years went by. Both were insults. The nerd was the boring person, the geek was the social outcast—the almost freak. In fact, freak and Geek were clearly not that different, but Freak had a bad rap. In 1968, DC Comics launched the character “Brother Power the Geek” created by Joe Simon. He was supposed to be a “wandering outcast philosopher” known as The Freak, but DC Comics management had serious concerns over the possible drug reference “freak” implied at the time, you know, because of the hippy culture. The Freak became The Geek.

Brother Power the Geek #1 by Joe Simon (1968)

But language evolves. For now, the nerd is the studious intellectual and the geek is an enthusiast (mostly of pop culture lately). Both are certainly passionate people, quite obsessed in fact, but not in the same way.

The two words never had the same definition, and that didn’t change. The way they are used, however, really evolved. Now, people claim to be nerds or geeks in a prideful way. Of course, for some, it’s still an insult.

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