What is the History of the Word Nerd?

In the last few years, the word “nerd” has changed a lot. It has grown from a disparaging term that meant to skewer unhip or out-of-touch people to a more value-neutral or sometimes even positive signifier of a specific type of media consumer. In fact, today, many people are enjoying things that only nerds used to appreciate before, such as video games, gadgets, anime, comic books, and more.

At the present time, there are all sorts of nerds out there, such as fantasy nerds, science nerds, fashion nerds, history nerds, music nerds, and more. But where do you think did the word “nerd” come from? If you have the same question in mind, read on as we’re giving you more information.


The word “nerd” was first documented as the name of a creature in the 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss. The narrator, Gerald McGrew, says that he would collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too” for his imaginary zoo. The slang meaning of the word “nerd” dates to 1951. In that year, Newsweek magazine reported on its famous use as a synonym for drip or square in Detroit, Michigan.

When the early 1960s came, the term was used popularly throughout the United States and even reached as far as Scotland. At some point, the word took associations of social ineptitude and bookishness.

In the mid-1960s or early 1970s, a different spelling, such as nurd or gnurd, also started to appear. In 1973, author Philip K. Dick claimed to have coined the nurd spelling, but its first recorded use appeared in a student publication back in 1965 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oral lore there holds that the word came from knurd, which is the word drunk spelled backward. It was used to label people who studied rather than partied. On the other hand, by the year 1965, the term gnurd was used at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the term “nurd” as early as 1971.

There was another theory of the word’s origin, which was presented by Jim Burrows, who has a website devoted to the word “nerd.” His theory suggests that nerd is from an acronym. In Ottawa, Northern Electric made a research and development lab which was called Northern Electric Research and Development. According to the story, the company gave its technicians pocket protectors with the initials of the lab printed on them, which spelled N.E. R&D. However, as delightful as this story is, it is probably not true. It’s because the name of the lab was not used until 1959, which was eight years after the word “nerd” appeared in Newsweek.

nerdy couple

Nerd Definitions

The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions for the word “nerd.” One defines it as an irrelevant, foolish, or socially inept person or someone who is uninterestingly conventional or studious. The other definition is a person who follows an unfashionable or highly technical interest with compulsive or exclusive dedication.

We can say that the first definition is quite outdated because calling someone a “nerd” these days is hardly sarcastic criticism. Also, it is not usually used to mean that a person is uninterestingly conventional. With this, the second definition seems to be more accurate, except for the thought that the interest in question must be highly technical or unfashionable.

woman reading a book

Nerd Stereotype

Due to the nerd stereotype, many smart people are usually thought of as nerdy. However, this belief is sometimes harmful, as it can cause students to not study hard out of fear of being branded as a nerd. In addition to that, it might also cause otherwise appealing for some to be considered nerdy because of their intellect.

Some of the stereotypical nerd appearances are often depicted in caricatures. They can include large glasses, buck teeth, braces, severe acne, and high-waist pants. In 2015, the Unicode also released an emoticon called the Nerd Face, which features some of those stereotypes 🤓. In the media, nerds are usually portrayed by men. They are depicted as physically unfit, either skinny or overweight, because they lack physical exercise. Also, some of the stereotypical behaviors associated with the nerd stereotype have connections with the traits of Asperger’s Syndrome and other autism-spectrum conditions.


The origin of the word nerd might not be very clear, but it is amazing how it was able to become known all over the world. It is also great to know that the term “nerd” these days no longer pertains to a negative description but rather refers to people who are very interested in specific things. But there are still many different meanings and uses of the word nerd, and we need to be mindful when using the term. We hope this article helped you further understand the history of the word nerd.