I've received a fair amount of e-mail in response to my Origin of the Nerd page. Since some of it contains interesting info, I'm collecting it here. This page also contains one or two messages that I've found in mailing list archives on the net.
I have arranged the messages in strict chronological order, even the discussion list messages that were not forwarded to or discovered by me until quite a long time after they were originally posted.
This message was posted in an exchange on the Humanist Discussion Group several years before I started my search for the origin of the term nerd. Earlier in the exchange someone mentioned that they recalled the word showing up in the annual Swarthmore College comedy revue. Another reader decided to hunt the info down, and reported the results.
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0235. Thursday, 28 Jun 1990.
Date: Wed, 27 Jun 90 16:53:14 EDT
From: Richard Ristow
Subject: A confirmed nerd from Swarthmore
In followup to the exchange about the term "nerd", thanks to Gregory J. Marsh in Special Collections at the Swarthmore College library. He writes in response to an inquiry about its occurrence in a college review in the early 1960s:
"I found Millard Fillmore Nerd in ... the 1961-62 Hamburg Show. ... In [a] skit, 'The Dean's Office,' he is visiting the dean and is unable, at first, to tell the dean his problem. The dean assumes he has broken some college rule (drinking, women, etc.) and prepares to expel Millard. Millard finally admits that his problem is that he has broken no rules, and is hence a square."
He also feels that, in context, Nerd's name seems intended to imply his squareness, and that therefore the term was previously known to the show's authors and audience.
Marsh points out that, in addition to the 1950 attestation in Dr. Suess previously mentioned on the list, the OED2 cites the Glasgow *Sunday Mail* as defining "nerd" as "a square" in 1957; these are the only two attestations before 1968, after which they become relatively common. He cites Richard Martin's book *Jocks and Nerds* as attributing to Eric Partridge a conjecture that the term originated in the 1920s or 30s.
The interesting picture this paints is that the term has existed in roughly its modern sense since the late 1950s, but with limited popularity, and that it gained wide usage around 1970. The television show *Happy Days* is apparently anachronistic in making it common in 1950s slang, but may well have contributed to its more recent popularity.
This next message is the first I got from an RPI alumnus advocating the drunk/knurd derivation. In many ways, I consider it, with its bald opening that "everyone knows…" to be the prototypical RPI message.
Date: Sat, 8 Nov 1997
Everyone knows that the rowdy ex-servicemen attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thought that drinking was a major activity, and that the overly studious non-military students who did not drink were wimps. The servicemen were referred to, rather accurately, as drunks and they in turn called the moderate to nil imbibers "knurds". Do a web search on knurd and see what you get.
The next message was not sent to me and was only brought to my attention some 3 years after it was sent to the ADS-L mailing list. It is, however, a key piece of information in establishing the chronology of the term:
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2000
From: "Joanne M. Despres"
Subject: Re: Wuss & others
No, the 1951 citation in our files does not have anything to do with the Dr. Seuss character; it is the first use of _nerd_ we've been able to find that applies to any person having the characteristics described in the definition ("an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person"). The Seuss critter is, however, mentioned in our etymology as a possible source for the generic term.
The citation, by the way, comes from Newsweek (October 8, 1951, p. 28) and reads as follows:
"In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve."
The next two e-mails provide more anecdotal information:
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2000
[T]here was an alligator joke going around about 1955 or so. The alligator was poking fun at a drunk who became quite indignant. "Stop or I shall turn you inside out". "Drunk, drunk", taunted the alligator. So the drunk grabbed him and turned him inside out. "Knurd, knurd" continued the alligator.
It was funny in 1955.
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2000
I attended high school in Cocoa, Florida, from 1959-1961. While I was there, [...] (one of the class wits), mentioned knurd to me, saying that it was drunk spelled backwards. I didn't understand why anyone would want such a word (I was too nerdy, I guess), but it stuck in my head all these years. Whether this is the legitimate origin of "nerd", I can't say, but this bit of "bogus folk etymology" was already in place 40 years ago.
Date: Mon Apr 14, 2003
re: Your account of the origin of the word "nerd". I have in my possession a letter from Philip K. Dick, dated Sept. 4, 1973, where he writes about his new book:
"They sent me the blurb flaps.. and they are so badly written... shit, if I tried to parody the blurbs it would not be possible. But at least the nurd (a neologism of my own) who wrote them did read the book".
In 2003, Peter Berrevoets presented me with a wonderfully creative theory for which neither of us have a whit of real evidence, but which completely tickles my fancy.
From: "Peter Berrevoets"
Subject: Origin of the NERD - Dr. Seuss? Not!
Date: March 26, 2003 1:08:35 AM EST
OK - nothing better to do at this hour...
1937 - handy to have the above site to document some of it... Northern Electric - Special Product Division; "first internal R & D department"
1966 - "Northern Electric's research and development labs develop the Precision Satellite Tracking Antenna"
1959, "established Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories in Ottawa"
"There was no such thing as a nerd back in 1947..." hmmm... really?
Now I 'know' that somewhere out there is a picture of one of these Northern Electric R&D boys wearing the white shirt, sleeves rolled up, black thick framed glasses and a pocket protector with 'N.E.R.D. Labs' printed right on it... I've seen pictures of my father (sans glasses) in a General Electric lab of that vintage 1955-1960 with a similar pocket protector. It will be found... and I will send it to you. ;-)
PS-enjoyed your site, looking forward to an update...
Pod Leader Team - GTA
About a decade after I started the whole journey, someone actually managed to give me some documentation on the usage of the term at RPI. Sadly, it doesn't really bear up the RPI-alumni folk-etymology, nor does it speak to the origin of the term. Still, it is a bit of RPI documentation.
From: "Dean C. Chatfield"
Subject: "Nurd" Info
Date: June 9, 2004 23:01:32 EDT
I came across this web site http://www.drkenner.com/html/rpi_bachelor.htm for the RPI humor magazine "Bachelor" (1952-1971) which seems to confirm the use of the term "Nurd" at RPI by at least 1965. Notice the picture of the rear cover of the Homecoming 1965 edition of Bachelor (on the lower right-hand side of the page) with the headline "Why are 61 nurds so excited?" There is a contact for more info on the Bachelor on the web page. I am a 1989 grad of RPI so I do not have any personal knowledge of the Bachelor, but when I was a freshman we were told by upperclassman (and by the "Unofficial RPI handbook") that "nerd" = "knurd" = "drunk" backwards.
From: "Russell Smith"
Subject: Knurd / nerd
Date: August 14, 2005 2:53:03 PM EDT
This isn't the documentation you asked for, but it's relevant.
I studied EE at Northwestern from 1970 to 1976. In 1972 I had a National Lampoon poster on my wall, titled "Are You a Knurd?" It was a photo of a doofus guy with the salient featires pointed out:
- Oxblood cordovans
- [Briefcase containing] next year's bio project
- Glasses repaired with adhesive tape
- 20/400 [vision]
- Pocket protector
- [Pen] Writes in four colors
And the spelling was, definitely, knurd. I challenged classmates to figure it out. "Try -- spelling it backwards!" "Ooooh!" I remember being peeved years later that the movie title changed it.
So, the dismissal of knurd as the origin of nerd is too cavalier.
I Googled the phrase "Are you a knurd?", and got nothing. So, this is an undocumented anecdote.
The following citation wasn't sent to me, but rather is something I found while searching the web. It's a great citation, being both early and, interestingly, geographically quite close to the earliest citation, suggesting that "nerd" was actually coined somewhere near where Newsweek first spotted it.
Date: Thu, 5 Aug 2004 20:55:09 -0400
Reply-To: American Dialect Society
Sender: American Dialect Society Mailing List
From: "Douglas G. Wilson"
Subject: Teen slang (1952): "nerd", "pashpie", "book gook", "jizzy", etc.
Here is "nerd" and here are some other items, straight from St. Joe.
_Herald-Press_ (St. Joseph MI), 23 June 1952: p. 14, cols. 7-8:
To 'Clue Ya' To Be 'George' And Not A 'Nerd' Or 'Scurve'
"Hey Dad, can I borrow the bug to go to the hecklethon? I've got a date with a pashpie who is a real wheel and not a bit pink."
The parent who replies in the affirmative is "real George and ricky-tik" but a suggestion to stay home and study instead will most likely be "filed under O," as that idea is "strictly for the birds."
If the patois throws you, you're definitely not in the know, because anyone who is not a nerd (drip) knows that the bug is the family car and a hecklethon is not a dangerous race, but merely the neighborhood movie theater.
The idea of dating a "pashpie" is really quite appealing when you know that a pashpie is a dreamy gal. Saying she is a "wheel" means, of course, that she is an important person. A "pink" person doesn't have a contagious disease but, almost as bad, is stuck-up.
Of course failure to get the car will probably get a "that's the way the ball bounces" out of one of the crowd (he means that's the way it goes.)
If the jelly-tot (young kid trying to be older than his years) does manage to talk his parents into loaning him the car, some jealous scurve (drip, again) is bound to come up with "Well, Jazz-a-boo for you."
To be "cool" is the desire of every teen-ager but the title of "book gook" (book worm) is to be shunned. The teen-age sophisticate disposes of bores with "Fly away like a bird, boy, you bother me," and instead of "I'll tell you" the modern version is "I'll clue you."
A subtle warning to a person who is about to blow his top is: "Don't panic," and one about to cry is told "Don't choke up." Among some groups a "cat" is a flashy dresser or a smooth character, who puts on the dog. "Let's rev" means let's go, and the appropriate answer is "reet" (okay).
One of the things often heard but seldom understood, even by the teeners, is "Chop chop, let's get cutting," and a "hubcap" is a "flash in the pan."
Approval of anything from a movie star to a new song is expressed with "pretty fine," "it's real precious" or "it's the greatest." Jizzy or jizz are also complimentary expressions meaning "nice." Everything doesn't meet with approval, of course, and those items which don't are neatly labeled "strictly ick."
Harmless but effective words for expressing disappointment are "fer shimmel" and "san o wich." Instead of saying "get him" it's "check him" and "big time" and "dot's nice, don' fight" are both much-used expressions.
Hang around any quirt counter (soda fountain) long enough and you, too, will learn the lingo of the teen-ager, ....
-- Doug Wilson
Finally, the most recently proposed theory to come my way, one that is pure speculation, and which I must confess, I don't find particularly compelling. Still….
From: "Mark Largent"
Subject: Nerd Musings...
Date: November 11, 2005 12:16:18 PM EST
Last night, I was reading Gerard Jones' "Men of Tomorrow" about the early origins of comic books and was reading a passage where some relatives of Superman co-creator Jerry Seigel were arguing over how to describe him as a youth. One said "he was a nerd" and the other challenged that, saying he was just quiet and then finally agreeing, but saying "we didn't have that word back then."
It got me to wondering where the word came from. I associated it with the 1950s because I first remember encountering it while watching "Happy Days."
I wondered if I could trace the word to anything and came up with this idea... totally unsubstantiated, but promising enough to make the whole debate on its origins more complicated...
A nerd is another name for a square. A square is cornered... which is pronounced cor-nerd.
Simplified, to be hip and since "square" was so widely used, it's not unbelievable that someone could have used "He's a 'nerd."
It might explain spelling it with an "e" instead of a "u" which would be the case if it were drunk backwards.
Anyway, I had a free moment now and went looking for the origin and stumbled upon your excellent site, and thought I'd send this your way.
Having long carried the American Heritage Dictionary's citation of Current Slang, I recently decided to verify it. Not having immediate access to the journal, I wrote to the reference library at the University of South Dakota, where it was published. I received a very prompt and helpful reply:
From: "ID Weeks Reference Desk"
Subject: RE: "Current Slang" Reference
Date: March 2, 2007 12:45:51 PM EST
Dear Mr. Burrows,
Here is the complete entry for the word "Nurd" exactly as it appears in the journal, including underlining, and the citation information for the source.
Nurd, n. Intellectually slow or foolish person.
Current Slang: A Quarterly Glossary of Slang Expressions Currently In Use volume V, number 4, page 17.
Editors: Stephen H. Dill and Donald E. Bebeau
Published by the Department of English, University of South Dakota.
I.D. Weeks Library
University of South Dakota
Since the quoted definition doesn't match what the AHD had reported, I replied, asking if it was possible that there were multiple entries. Prof. Aldrich replied with additional citations, as follows:
From: "ID Weeks Reference Desk"
Subject: RE: "Current Slang" Reference
Date: March 5, 2007 11:23:40 AM EST
Here are all of the entries contained in volumes 1-6 for either the spelling "Nerd" or "Nurd" in addition to the entry that I already sent you from volume V, number 4.
The extended entry from the Current Slang Cumulation (their spelling) volume III & IV (197) appears to be where the American Heritage Dictionary obtained their definition. I noticed as well in the first 4 volumes that a reference to the source of the slang term was provided immediately following the definition of the term. This information is absent from volume V and VI.
Again, I tried to type in each entry exactly as written in the origional volume.
I hope this helps clarify things.
I. D. Weeks Library
University of South Dakota
Current Slang, vol V, number 1 Summer 1970, p. 21.
Editors: Stephen H. Dill & Donald E. Bebeau.
Nerd, n. An undistinguished, popular person, a “creep”.
Current Slang: Cumulation Volumes III & IV, p. 88. (1970).
Editors: Stephen Dill & Donald Bebeau.
Nurd, n. Someone with objectionable habits or traits; an affected person. –College students, both sexes, New Hampshire.
, n. Undesirable person. –College students and general population, Texas.
, n. An uninteresting person, a “dud”. –University of Kentucky
2008 started out with a purported 1919 sighting of the word "nerd" in the mouth of Ignatz Mouse, presaging one of his inevitable assaults on Krazy Kat with brick. It reads:
From: Tami Cohen
Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2008 08:26:32 -0500
i just looked up "krazy kat" on google (i'm reading the charles schultz bio and it got me curious) and i saw the term "nerd" in a 1919 comic!
Attached to the email was the following image from Coconino-World.com: