Supersonic Man

December 19, 2015

A historical timeline of the word “nerd”

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 4:22 pm

An expanded version of this post has been moved to my website.  This is just an early draft — the official version is quite a bit longer, and has pictures.


1930s: The interjection “nerts”, used because some consider it vulgar to blurt out “nuts”, enjoys some popularity.

1940s: The singular “nert” evolves into a label applied to people, meaning someone who is nutty.  Its use is not widespread, but has been attested among particular groups, one being surfers.

1950: Dr. Seuss tosses off the nonsense word “nerd” for an imaginary animal in If I Ran The Zoo.

1951: Teen slang in the Detroit area is reported to have adopted “nerd” as the fashionable new term for an uncool unhip person, otherwise known as a “drip” or “square”.  This usage may or may not predate Dr. Seuss’s, and may or may not derive from “nert”, but it definitely spread from southeast Michigan.

1965: The spelling “nurd” comes into use, and predominates for some time.  The word is by now somewhat commonly connected with bookish intellectual types, but is still little known to most of the public.  At MIT the spelling “gnurd” catches on.  At this time, brainiacs at MIT and similar institutions are known for backward clothing styles and outmoded crewcuts.  Many of them enjoy trashy science fiction.

circa 1972: I hear the word for the first time when my dad (himself a high IQ pocket-protected engineer who had only recently ceased rocking a crewcut) declares Batman to be a nerd.  It briefly becomes my little brother’s favorite new word.

1974: Happy Days debuts, and popularizes the term by using it as a piece of period slang, usually applying it not to smart or socially awkward characters, but to those who try to be cool and fail.  Usage of the word among viewers skyrockets.

1975: National Lampoon issues this poster, firmly establishing the stereotype for what the word will now mean.

1977: Personal computers emerge into the mass market, which results in raising the visibility of computer and electronics experts as a recognizable social class, and over several years, accelerating the association of the word with them in particular.  At the same time, Star Wars brings science fiction fandom into mainstream visibility.

1981: By now several computer innovators have achieved wealth and become household names, thereby becoming role models and getting people to start thinking of nerds as winners.  This trend will expand steadily until the dot-com crash of 2000.

1984: Revenge Of The Nerds is released.  People with technical interests and skills start to use the word as self-description with some regularity, with a “nerd pride” movement becoming visible a few years later.

1993: Professor Gerald Sussman, a former MIT hacker, tells a reporter “I want every child to become a nerd.”  (And it’s around this time that one of my nerd friends proclaims “It’s our world now and you can’t have it back!”)

1995: The World Wide Web popularizes mass usage of computer networks.  Non-experts start learning web development in large numbers, and produce the beginnings of today’s distinct internet culture.  In this environment, minor subcultures become highly visible, and the terms “nerd” and “geek” are increasingly used for those seen devoting excessive time and energy to fandoms, similarly to how the word “otaku” is used in Japan — a term which anime fandom is bringing to America around this time.

circa 2003: San Diego Comic-Con grows with extreme rapidity, becoming the center of the various fandoms associated with nerds.  The public becomes steadily more aware of the breadth of “nerd culture”.  It becomes common for people start to describe themselves as nerds or geeks based on their fandoms rather than on their skills or temperament — that is, they define the label by what they consume rather than what they produce, even as these fandoms increasingly merge into the mainstream. Opinion pieces bemoaning mass nerdification start cropping up, mainly in conservative media.

2007: The Big Bang Theory debuts, bringing the first broad depiction of all facets of nerd culture to a mass audience.

2012: As supposedly nerdy interests such as superheroes and wizards take over pop culture, jock types also move into technical fields.  “Brogrammers” are now a thing.

2013: “MovieBob” Chipman points out that calling oneself a nerd has now become merely a “commodified lifestyle label”, saying nothing about your temperament or skills or social history.


1 Comment »

  1. What an interesting verbal evolution. I’ve pondered this change of connotation myself for ‘nerd’ at times. I just thought I’d say hello…You chose to follow my psychedelic blog – I think it was – which never got off the ground after a confluence of life events caused me to forget it existed…I have wondered, since last year, what your connection to Supersonic Man was. I am a big MST3K and Rifftrax aficionado, and last year, they gave the treatment to this delightfully bad Italian superhero flick. The weird thing is, I don’t remember ever giving out the psychotrippical blog’s URL anywhere on the Rifftrax forum. Perhaps I ought to get back to it again. I have not in any way lost my enthusiasm for the subject. Incidentally, speaking of nerd and geekdom, while the spotlight of this universe is focused on Star Wars VII, I am far more thrilled to have heard the news that MST3K is returning! To me, that really is a dream come true. Anyway, thanks for the etymology lesson…may the force of the galaxies be with you!

    Comment by Demimonde Mesila Thraam — December 19, 2015 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

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