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The term nerd has no clear origin, but most sources agree that it is from the '50s. The AHD, for instance, states that:

  • The first known occurrence of the word nerd, undefined but illustrated, dates from 1950 and is found in If I Ran the Zoo, a children's book by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel). The book's narrator lists various imaginary creatures that he would keep in 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!" (The nerd is a small humanoid creature looking comically angry.)

Most dictionaries give two definition of nerd, the more general and derogatory one is always the first:

  • A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious. (ODO)

while, the related but probably more common and less negative one, always comes as second:

  • a person who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knows a lot of facts about it. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Checking with Ngram it appears that "nerd" has become a very popular term only from the '80s, much more than "computer nerd" for instance.

Questions:

What made "nerd" a popular therm from the '80s? Was it its original derogatory meaning or the more recent technology related one?

Has "nerd" still a negative connotation or has "tech specialist" nuance of the term outgrown the original meaning?

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    My opinions: 1. Popularised by the internet. 2. The positive connotation of "nerd" is now on the rise. But "geek" is a better word for the positive connotation nowadays. See "nerd" vs "geek" on Google. – NVZ Jun 30 '16 at 5:45
  • The term nerd used to be derogatory, and for a fair bit of time too. It meant socially inept, and almost "insignificant". Nerds began standing up for themselves (so to speak) and joining forces with geeks when IT (i.e. computers) began to really hit big time. When did this happen? Mid 1990s, and then there's TBBT (The Big Bang Theory) – Mari-Lou A Jun 30 '16 at 5:58
  • The rise of Silicon Valley and the American computer industry at large has allowed many "nerdy" people to accumulate large fortunes. Many stereotypically "nerdy" interests, such as superhero and science fiction works, are now popular culture hits. Some measures of nerdiness are now allegedly considered desirable, as, to some, it suggests a person who is intelligent, respectful, interesting, and able to earn a large salary. Wikipedia – Mari-Lou A Jun 30 '16 at 6:00
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    Revenge of the Nerds came out in 1984 and Real Genius in 1985, reflecting the new possibilities for computer and electronics experts to overshadow jocks in earnings (Microsoft and Apple had both been founded just a decade earlier, and were already achieving prominence) and adventure. I think both nerd and geek were taking off in usage at about that time. FWIW, I would say both terms can apply to any subject specialist, and without modifier can also apply to anyone who appears to be "too school for cool", regardless of whether they prefer computers or poetry. – 1006a Oct 14 '16 at 1:39
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    Apparently it was the 1970s tv show Happy Days where it was popularized. vulture.com/2013/03/… – dfmetro Nov 6 '16 at 19:30
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Dictionary discussions of 'nerd/nurd'

The term nerd (or nurd) doesn't appear in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960), but this entry appears in Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, supplemented edition (1967):

nerd [or] nurd n. A contemptible, undesirable, or unpleasant person, esp. one who is not in the know; a "square." 1965: "Nurd a person who is not in the know, a square, not hip."Tom Medley, Hot Rod Jargon. Teenage use.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) propounds the If I Ran the Zoo theory but also floats an alternative influence that is even earlier. Here is Lighter's entry, including its earliest antecedent cites and same-sense citations:

nerd n. {prob. suggested by the nerd, whimsical creature in If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by "Dr. Seuss" (Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904–91), U.S. children's author, itself perh. infl. by Mortimer Snerd, name of dummy used by Edgar Bergen, U.S. ventriloquist} 1. Stu. a dull, obnoxious, or unattractive person; DRIP [in the sense of "an obnoxious, esp. a tedious, person"]; JERK. Also, nurd. Also as quasi-adj. {The 1957 quot., though from a Glasgow newspaper, seems likely to have been copied fr. a U.S. source.} [First listed antecedents and instances:] {1941 in C.R. Bond & T.Anderson Flying T. Diary 43: I discussed the P-40 flying characteristics with "Mortimer Snerd" Shilling.} {1950 "Dr. Seuss" If I Ran the Zoo 49: 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!} 1951 ([first occurrence date] cited in W10 [Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary tenth edition (1993)]) 1957 in OED2: Nerd—a square. 1960 Yale Record (Oct.) 11: Ah, get outta here, nurd. 1960 Swarthout Where the Boys Are 45: Malcolm was a real nurd. 1961 Kohner Gidget Goes Hawaiian 22: He was a real nurd. 1961 Sullivan Shortest Gladdest Years 307: He was a whey-faced little nerd. ...

2. Stu. an overdiligent student; (hence) a person obsessively devoted to a (usu. specified) nonsocial activity. [first citation is to a 1974 interview with a University of Tennessee professor, "age *ca*38": "In the late 1950's, at St. Olaf College [in Northfield, Minnesota] a 'grind' was also referred to as a nerd. Because so many students were of Scandinavian ancestry the phrase Nordic nerd was also used. I had never heard nerd before that."

According to the Muppet Wiki article on Mortimer Snerd, the dim-bulb ventriloquist dummy debuted on The Chase & Sanborne Hour (a radio program) in 1938. You can see him in action in the movie You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and on an unidentified TV show (1950).

Max Cryer, Common Phrases: And the Amazing Stories Behind Them (2010) views the theory that Seuss is the source of nerd in its modern slang sense as being beyond question:

The first known appearance of the word nerd in print—which launched its growth into international use—was in the story If I Ran The Zoo (1950), by children's author Dr. Seuss, in which a character proclaims:

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!

The story was illustrated with a grumpy looking android not particular about personal grooming.

A glossary entry for nurd in Raymond Buckley, When Better Women Are Made (1967) as this entry for nurd:

A nurd. For all practical purposes a nurd is equivalent to a weeny. I'm afraid I cannot discriminate them further.


Database matches for 'nerd/nurd'

Glendon Swarthout, Where the Boy Are (1960), cited in the Lighter entry for nerd above, reads in context as follows [combined snippets]:

Malcolm made love with surprising savoir-faire, which might have been due to many hours of practice on the clarinet; I have heard trombone players are best because they develop a terrific lip; and when we were both breathing hard and I had given him every sign the supply was equal to the demand, to use economic terms, he inquired if I was a virgin and when I responded in the affirmative to my consternation he leaped up, righted his disarray, and in a spasm of boyish emotion swore that he would never, never be the one to send an innocent girl down the road to ruin. That damn boy was an idealist! Round and round we went, up the walls and over the furniture. I used every argument which had been employed upon me in the dark of night, I played Tschaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini on the hi-fi, I coaxed him into smoking a cigarette and slugging down a shot of my father's sloe gin, but to utterly no avail. Malcolm was a real nurd. In the end he said he was saving himself for marriage, and broke it up by leaving. I could have hit him with a lamp. In a perverted sense it was the most immoral, not to say humiliating, evening in my recollection.

The earliest valid match for nurd in an Elephind search is from "24 Games Open IM Basketball," in the [Washington, D.C.] Hoya (December 10, 1959), Georgetown University's student newspaper:

The Intramural Basketball League got underway last week with a total of twenty-four games being played at McDonough Gym.

In the AAA League, the defending champion Big Muvas, the Eglags, and Legal Eagles grabbed initial wins over the Grendels, Nurds, and Prefects.

Kevin Hennessy scored 13 to pace the Muvas to a 44-34 win over the Grendels, while Joe DiMare's 16 led the fast breaking Eglags to a 62-32 win over the Nurds.

And from Carl Langley, "Frat Chat: IFC Leadership Conference, Rho Tau on Agenda for This Weekend," in the [Richmond, Virginia] Collegian (March 10, 1961), the student newspaper of the University of Richmond:

"Jenerous Jim" struck again so say the Nurd, Mr. Infallible, and the Gap. Another big weekend at home, Dwight? This was a big weekend for the Mole, also, and on his birthday too.

The earliest Elephind match for "a nerd" is from Deb Stoddard, "Fastly Foibles," in the [State College, Pennsylvania] Daily Collegian (January 6, 1965), the student newspaper of Pennsylvania State University:

Life may be real, earnest and measured out in coffee spoons but it just ain't deserving of some of the slang quoted by Time [magazine]. I don't believe it!

Here are some examples.

Penn State's pet, the rat fink, is R.F. at Southern Cal and "mouse fink" at ivy-bound Harvard.

At the University of North Carolina you can't even be that detestible beast, the fink. You are either a squid, a cull, a troll or a nerd. How degrading is that?

The use of snerd as a descriptive term occurs in "Edgar Bergen Broadcasts from Racquet Club: Celebrities Guests on Last Show," in the [Palm Springs, California] Desert Sun (February 24, 1955) but not elsewhere in the Elephind database in that capacity during the 1950s and 1960s:

Johnny Mercer, who has written so many Hit Parade songs and is up for an Academy Award for his score for "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," sang an impromptu composition in his TV style, and met Mortimer Snerd. Mortimer, of course, made "snerd" remarks that added to the fun.


Conclusions

The slang term nerd/nurd has been use since the late 1950s at least as student slang referring to a boring, conventional, unimaginative, tedious, twerpy person who is averse to doing anything the least bit wild or daring.

The connection of that term to the term nerd in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo (as a nonsense name of one of the many imaginary creatures that Gerald McGrew would popular his zoo with) is far from obvious. It bears noticing that Dr. Seuss wrote quite a few books that focused on page after page of exotic animals and their extraordinary habits, including If I Ran the Circus, Happy Birthday to You (which is set in Katroo, the alleged home [rendered as Ka-Troo] of the It-Kutch, Preep, Proo, Nerkle, Nerd, and Seersucker in If I Ran the Zoo), On Beyond Zebra, McElligot's Pool, Scrambled Eggs Super, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Under the circumstances it would be rather surprising if none of Seuss's made-up creature names didn't also appear as slang words. The trick is to identify a direct connection between the word from Seuss and the word as used by (in this case) college kids, hot-rodders, and beach blanket bingoers.

In this regard, I am very skeptical of the claimed paternity. You can see what the Nerd looks like in If I Ran the Zoo at 9:12 of this YouTube video; and Max Cryer's gloss on its appearance notwithstanding, it doesn't look particularly nerdy to me. In fact the closest passing resemblance it bears to a humanoid is to Yosemite Sam, who isn't a nerd by any rational measure.

Another problem for the Seuss source theory is that most of the early Google Books and Elephind database matches that I found for the slang term spell the word nurd; so proponents of the Seuss hypothesis must argue that people remembered the name nerd and what the creature looked like from a spread it shared with five other made-up animals in a book full of other made-up animals with outlandish names, but most of those people didn't remember how Dr Seuss spelled it.

I am much more inclined to accept that the name of Edgar Bergen's second-banana ventriloquist's dummy, Mortimer Snerd, influenced the emergence of nerd as a slang term for a kind of lame doofus (which Snerd certainly was). But even that possibility is far from obvious.

The pool of single-syllable English-sounding words that seem cute or appealing or appropriately disparaging for slang coinages is perhaps smaller than people tend to think. Consider the foam material dubbed Nerf, which, according to its Wikipedia entry, is an acronym for non-expanding recreational foam. Although that sense of Nerf originated in 1969 or 1970, Wadsworth & Flexner's 1960 Dictionary of American Slang includes an entry for a very different kind of nerf:

nerf v.t. To push one car with another. Hot-rod use since c1955. From the nerfing bar that supports the bumper on most cars.

Regrettably, Wadsworth & Flexner left the etymology of nerfing bar untraced—although a now-obsolete meaning of nerf in use until the 16th century or so was "sinew"—so who knows. Anyway, nerf and Nerf arose within 15 years of each other and yet appear to be completely unrelated. I would not be shocked if the same turned out to be true of Dr. Seuss's zoo-ready nerd and the socially inept nerd/nurd of the late 1950s to the present.

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I first heard the term in the '70s on Happy Days. This show ran from '73-'84 and was ranked in the top three for a few of those years (it literally "jumped the shark" in '77 but still ranked #3 the next year).

I just googled "Nerd Happy Days" and found a number of references crediting that show with popularizing the term.

It was among a number of catch phrases featured in the show that were meant to stand in for then-unutterable vulgarities ("Sit on it", etc.).

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As a high-school junior who's been called a "nerd" a fair number of times, I'll take a stab at answering your second question.

The usage of the word "nerd" primarily depends on its context.

For instance, an app-builder, or a world chess champion, or anyone super smart for that matter, will almost always be termed a "nerd" -- but in a good-natured, almost envious, sort of way. This is essentially a form of praise, with little to no negative connotation attached.

On the other hand, if the person in question is smart, but hasn't done anything impressive enough in the eyes of the masses and displays stereotypical awkwardness, they're likely to be labeled a "nerd." With condescending negative undertones. Why? Because, through no fault of human pyschology, negative traits tend to stick longer in people's minds. So until you're truly awesome enough at something to outlast your shortcomings, you risk being called a nerd for your Achilles' heel. This is obviously an ignorant way of looking at things, but that's how most people generally behave (at least, in high school settings).

So context is key here.

protected by tchrist Nov 2 '17 at 1:39

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