Seeking the etymology of your highschool bully’s favorite insult

We all know the stereotype of that awkward kid: once the image of the nervous, skinny teenager with the pocket protector that got shoved into lockers and did everyone’s homework. Maybe you got shoved. Maybe you did the shoving. Now we know him (or her) as the nervous, awkward kid who knows his/her way around a computer, can run circles around you in calculus and has memorized every frame of your favourite fighting game. And we love them for it.

But whence comes the “nerd?” Slate contributor Ben Zimmer has written a piece which, well, doesn’t quite answer that question. Rather, Zimmer argues that there is no one satisfying origin story for the term, only that it made its first documented appearance in 1951:

Zimmer’s article runs through a bunch of other amusing hypotheses. He gives some wary credence to the theory that the fantastical nerd in Dr. Seuss’s 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo gave rise to the insult, though he notes that that would mean the term had a very quick adoption: The first known appearance of the word came in a 1951 Newsweek article that cited it as an example of contemporary teenspeak. But in the end, Zimmer concludes that there probably isn’t a single, unambiguous source for the term.

Zimmer debunks Simon Pegg’s popular claim that the term derives from the expression “ne’er-do-well”, citing the lack of historical data to support it. But either way, the word “nerd” has evolved to include a rather large, mixed bag of people (there’s the math nerd, the art nerd, the videogame nerd, and so many variations thereof)—no longer referring just to the social pariah, but anyone who is passionate about something and isn’t afraid to show it…perhaps to the exclusion of friends and dates.

So give that nerdy kid a hug, make friends with him (or her). Because you don’t want to be on the nerds’ bad side when they inevitably take over the world.

Lana Polansky

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