To be called a nerd these days isn't such a bad thing — it can even be a statement of pride, a way of owning up to an all-consuming passionate interest, particularly in something technological or pop-cultural (or both). It has been reclaimed as a positive label in much the same way as geek has. The cartoonish '80s movie The Revenge of the Nerds turned out to have some prescience, as nerdy types from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg have come to rule so much of 21st-century life. So it's only natural to wonder, where did the word nerd come from?
As a self-professed word nerd, I don't mind embracing nerd in all of its conflicted glory. (One well-traveled Venn Diagram spells out the distinctions among dweeb, geek, dork, and nerd in terms of intelligence, social ineptitude, and obsession; nerd is the term that lies at the intersection of all three qualities.) And I'm fascinated by the multitudinous explanations that people have come up with to explain where nerd came from. What could be nerdier than dissecting the etymology of nerd?
I devoted a recent Boston Globe column to this very topic, taking particular exception to the origin story for nerd currently being espoused by the British comedian, actor, screenwriter, and über-nerd Simon Pegg. Pegg explains the title of his new book Nerd Do Well as a riff on what he claims is the etymology for nerd; he believes it's a shortened form of ne'er-do-well. That, along with many other theories, was debunked by John C. Dvorak in a 1987 PC Magazine column, though some have stubbornly held on to it. John A. Barry, in his 1991 book Technobabble, presents the ne'er-do-well shortening as his own pet theory, though he acknowledges that there's no real evidence for it.
A useful term for these speculations about word origins comes from Yale linguist Larry Horn: etymythology. (I discussed the term last year in a column about corporate etymythologies, like the tale that Keds tells about the origins of sneakers, or Hershey about the origins of kisses.) It's in our nature to etymythologize: we're curious about where words come from, and we sometimes don't let pesky facts get in the way of a good story.
When I mentioned the ne'er-do-well etymythology to our resident linguist Neal Whitman, he was reminded of a similar explanation given for dork, as a supposed shortening of door-key kid (presumably a variant of latchkey kid). It's striking that both theories look for an expanded form, a compound noun, that was somehow shortened by taking the first element (ne'er, door) with the first consonant of the following element grafted on. (In the case of ne'er-do-well, some fiddling with the first vowel is necessary as well to get to nerd.) This is hardly a productive type of word formation in English. The only example I've been able to think of along these lines is bumf, British slang for toilet paper that derives from bum-fodder. Perhaps Pegg was predisposed to the ne'er-do-well explanation because of bumf or similar Briticisms.
A more common type of etymythology is the fabricated acronym: posh doesn't really stand for "Port Out Starboard Home," and tip doesn't really stand for "To Insure Politeness" (or "Promptness"). Nerd, of course, has its own acronymic explanations, from the plausible (the Northern Electric Research and Development laboratory, unfortunately founded after nerd had already entered teen slang) to the silly ("Neurotic Engineers in R&D"). People are still acronymizing nerd: the name of the hip-hop group N.E.R.D. is a backronym for "No one Ever Really Dies." And there are various other kinds of word manipulation informing the nerd etymythologies, such as the reversal of drunk to spell knurd. ("Happy Days" fans may be reminded of Joanie nicknaming Potsie "dren," since she said he was the opposite of a nerd.)
Nerd-watchers from Dvorak to Jim Burrows (who has a webpage devoted to the origin of the word) have concluded that the likeliest origin is from the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950, a year before nerd shows up in a Newsweek article about teen slang. You can see a slightly earlier variation of Seuss's "nerd" line here, in the shorter version of If I Ran the Zoo that was published in the July 1950 issue of the magazine Redbook. I still find it hard to believe that one of Seuss's innumerable nonsense words could have been incorporated into teenager slang in a year's time, but at least we have evidence that Seuss used the term, which is more than can be said of the many etymythological conjectures.
As Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky pointed out to me, "words like dork and nerd, like names invented for characters, don't necessarily have a historical source of the ordinary sort." We don't demand an explanation for the "Snerd" of "Mortimer Snerd" or the "Mork" of "Mork and Mindy," because those are fictional names. But like those names, nerd and dork may simply have sounded suitably nerdy and dorky, thanks to their phonesthemic qualities, or the associations we make with the sounds that constitute a word (like the sk- sound that gave us scram, skedaddle, and 23 skidoo). That more nebulous account isn't as compelling as the just-so stories of etymythology, however, so you can expect amateur word nerds to continue seeking more satisfying explanations.
Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer