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Nerd is defined as an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits. (Merriam Webster) The first documented appearance of the word nerd is as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950).

Dork is defined as a socially awkward or inept person (Merriam Webster), and currently used as a synonym for nerd. However, Merriam-Webster states that Dork is a variation on Dick, which is a variation on Prick. Both Prick and Dick are defined as "a spiteful man." Ex. The captain is a real prick/dick. So in its early use, dork would have referred to someone who's a prick (a spiteful man).

How did dork as a "a spiteful man" become a synonym for nerd, someone "slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits?" Is there a common linguistic process at work here?

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It's probably more the case that they begin as terms with a similar meaning, and only later diverge.

DORK is noted as "a penis" (from 1961) and "a fool" (from 1965) in Green's Dictionary of Slang.

NERD there is given as "(orig. US) an unpleasant, insignificant or dull person" (from 1951).

That rather misses out the nuance whereby it could be said that nerds are dorks with brains.

It seems to be the case that "nerd" begins as a general pejorative, and only later develops the "studious but socially unacceptable" sense. Looking at the cites given in GDoS, it looks as if the shift in the meaning of "nerd" begins to happen in the late 1980s.

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    Nerd can now also be someone who specializes (or overspecializes) in one area, and gets a lot of pleasure out of that. The area might well be something esoteric, and is probably practiced indoors as a non-athletic activity, for example "comic book nerd." There's a certain expertise involved. – aparente001 Jun 13 '17 at 3:41
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    The term for what you describe (in British slang) is "an anorak". This is slightly more specialized than "nerd", and implies a degree of obsessiveness. – Robin Hamilton Jun 13 '17 at 4:54
  • Oh, so you're saying that in the UK you would say "anorak," and that would be more or less equivalent to the new "nerd" in the US? // Would "nerd" be understood in the UK as I described? – aparente001 Jun 13 '17 at 13:54
  • @aparente001 "anorak" in this sense first appeared in the UK in the early eighties, but by now, I suspect that the US import, "nerd", has pushed it out of fashion. The archetypal anorak collected train numbers, which involved spending long periods of time in drafty station platforms. They wore anoraks (the garment) to keep warm. – Robin Hamilton Jun 16 '17 at 9:10
  • Cute image. I have a teenaged neighbor with high-functioning autism who spends his free time on the street corner making observations of the exact times the city buses pass by our street. It's fascinating for him. To each his own! – aparente001 Jun 16 '17 at 13:19

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