History of “Nerd”

History of “Nerd”

By: Terra Olsen


To kick-start Have You Nerd, it is only appropriate to look into the origin of “nerd”- the inspiration for this Blog.

The word “nerd” has had an interesting evolution in pop culture. Many have credited Dr.Seuss for creating the term ‘nerd,’ since it first appeared published in If I Ran the Zoo.[1] However, it also appeared one year later in a Newsweek article that suggested the term “nerd” had replaced the terms “drip” and “square.”[2] It seems very unlikely that the term traveled so quickly from Dr.Seuss’ children’s book to the streets of Detroit. Rather it was probably a term used by the youth, and Dr. Seuss took notice or perhaps heard it in passing. Of course, this is just theory and cannot be proved. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary declares that nerd is “of unknown origin,” only that it came into existence in the 1950s.[3] With this being the case, I think we can agree that the exact origin of nerd is a hazy mystery, but interesting regardless.

As all young words, nerd was used widely by the younger generations in the 50s and 60s.[4] But by the 1970s, nerd was widespread in pop culture. In the 1970s, one could find references to nerds everywhere. Saturday Night Live had a series of sketching featuring the nerdy shenanigans of Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray) and Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner), depicting their awfully awkward and hilarious daily lives (link to video below). In the Happy Days’ episode “Fonzie vs. the She Devils,” the Fonz dresses up as a nerd to save his friends from the She Devils’ “Nerd Contest” (see video). Both Happy Days and SNL depict a nerd as being someone who is terribly awkward, with the token glasses and distinct slouch.

SNL Nerds of Seduction

This image continued to live on in pop culture until something interesting happened. Being a ‘nerd’ became cool…but only in an ironic hipster sense. This picture about sums up the image of the nerd in today’s culture:

However, at the same time a new group of self-proclaimed nerds have revealed themselves–people who are “nerds” in the sense that they are really knowledgeable in a particular subject.[5] Although this new definition is slowly catching on, there are numerous examples of nerd being used in this manner. There are hundreds (thousands?!) of Blogs covering fashion nerds, gardening nerds, poetry nerds, cooking nerds, etc. Hopefully as time goes on, this definition will move beyond the Blogs and into pop culture, like Courtney Smith’s book, Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time. Some might argue that these people are not ‘nerds’ but I think the term has evolved past computers and gaming, and should be celebrated! No longer is it considered weird to have a passion that is teetering on obsession. So find your inner nerd and run with it!


[1] Geisel, Theodor Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo (New York: Random House, 1950), 47.

[2] “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.” Newsweek, October 8th, 1951, 16. Quoted in http://www.eldacur.com.

[4] In the 1960s, ‘nerd’ was used as a last name in a comedy sketch from Swarthmore College. Burrows, Jim. Eldacur.com. Web. <http://www.eldacur.com/~brons/NerdCorner/NerdMail.html&gt;.

[5] “…a single-minded expert in a particular technical field…” “Nerd.” Oxford Dictionary.