May 6, 2013

Case File #013.05.06: NERD

Although there is evidence that the slang term nerd was used by members of the American hot-rod and surfing subcultures of the 1950s, the earliest examples of its current senses of “an intellectual but socially inept person” and “a single-minded expert in a particular pursuit or discipline” date back no further than 1965. Prior to that, a nerd was simply somebody regarded as foolish, stupid, or crazy. Now, while most word nerds are in agreement about this timeline and semantic shift, there is a minor controversy over the term's ultimate roots. Some lexicographers and etymologists claim that nerd was coined by Dr. Seuss (nom de plume of Theodor Seuss Geisel) in his children's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), and this is, in fact, the etymology proffered by the tenth and eleventh editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. But even though nerd is indeed uttered by a character in Seuss's book, it is used merely as a nonsensical word, and in no way does the context suggest that the author intended anything even remotely related to the now familiar slang. So instead of buying into the hypothesis of the Seuss source, a majority of etymologists believe nerd actually developed as a variation of the earlier 1940s slang word nert, meaning “a stupid, eccentric, or crazy person,” which was itself derived from nut.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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