Friday, June 6, 2014

Origins: Nerd

In my mind, "geek," "nerd," and "otaku" are fairly neutral—and perhaps even complimentary— terms. But the greater part of society disagrees, so I figured I'd look up a couple of these words, see exactly what we're calling each other, and share my findings with you. Four weeks ago, for my first Origins post, I shared what I learned about the word "geek." Today, I'll talk about nerd, a word with a much shorter history.

I'm quoting part of an assignment from this last semester. OED is short for the Oxford English Dictionary in the next paragraph:

While most people in my internet circles use the word "geek" more often than nerd, it has still lost most negative connotations in my mind. Yet, once again, my mind is not in sync with much of the English speaking world. In fact, one of OED's first descriptors for the word, after "slang," is "derogatory."
Nerd's origin is recent, "uncertain and disputed." It may be from a fictional animal in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. It could also be a euphemism for "turd," although the spelling makes it unlikely (OED). Douglas Harper agrees that Dr. Seuss's book might have played a part in the popularity of nerd. However, he pins its rise in 1951, "probably an alteration of the 1940s slang nert 'stupid or crazy person,' itself an alteration of nut."
Regardless of its origin, nerd has grown to include "socially inept" people, those who are "boringly conventional or studious," and, more recently, "a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication" (OED).

That last definition lines up most with my use of the word.  Much of the world might still mean nerd as an insult, but that doesn't stop us from using it in a more positive tone. In fact, I'm rather thankful to the name-callers. Without them, those of us with "uncool" interests would have to come up with our own names and adjectives for ourselves. It's much easier to just hijack so-called "derogatory" terms and make them our own.

- - -
“Nerd, n.” OED OnlineOxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 16 April 2014
Harper, Douglas. "Nerd." Online Etymology Dictionary.


  1. In a way, it is strange that the terms nerd, geek, and otaku are so complimentary these days. After all, they imply a weird obsession, and usually people with obsessions are not thought highly of--unless they are a monk anyway. I wonder if the relativity plaguing our world has so far taken the value from things that we admire anyone who pursues something with dedication. Just a thought.

    Though I, as an otaku, also think that there is something complimentary about those terms.

    1. There's an interesting mix of responses to people with the type of dedication otaku have. On the one hand, there is some admiration for anyone so dedicated--likely because, by all appearances, such a person has found their identity, their purpose. In a society heavily influenced by existentialism, where people make their own identity, an otaku is almost enviable.

      On the other hand, like I reflected on in my post "Don't be Passionate," people don't like to be made uncomfortable. They have their way of understanding the world, and if someone's obsession or passion intrudes on their way of life, people get defensive.


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