In today’s parlance, a nerd is an exceptional studious or technically proficient person, but the original sense was that of a boring or very conventional person. The earliest known use of the word dates to 1951, when it appears in the 8 October issue of Newsweek:
In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.
The origin of nerd is not known, but there are two leading contenders. The first, more likely, explanation is that it is a variation of Mortimer Snerd, a dummy used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Snerd was a buck-toothed yokel of limited intelligence and the word snerd has some slang currency meaning a fool or idiot back to at least 1948. From the Walla Walla Union Bulletin (Walla Walla, Washington) of 1 February 1948:
They’re Not Snerds
That Stalin, Molotov and Vishinsky are plain stupid is a conclusion to be wary of.
And there is this from the Waukesha Daily Freeman (Waukesha, Wisconsin) of 29 August 1949:
You can almost see and hear the Snerdish inhabitant blushing and admitting, in his infinite greenness: “I come from Gurkee’s Corners. Have a chaw?”
While Mortimer Snerd certainly does not fit the current usage of nerd meaning a bookish person, it does fit quite well with the original sense of a boring and unremarkable person.
The second explanation is that it is a reference to the 1950 Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo, which contains the lines:
I’ll sail to Ka-Troo
And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!
While it is possible that this is the origin, it appears unlikely. How the transition from an undescribed and imaginary creature to a person occurred is not explained. Also, the date is very close to the 1951 date of the first known slang use of nerd and it is very likely that an instance of the slang usage will be found that antedates the Seuss book.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton