Nerd is a derogatory slang term for an intellectual but socially-impaired, perhaps obsessive person who spends inordinate amounts of time on unpopular or obscure pursuits, usually relevant to topics of fiction or fantasy as opposed to relating to the natural world, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities. Nerds are considered to be awkward, shy, and unattractive. Thus, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by others, or will tend to associate with a small group of like-minded people. As with other pejoratives, nerd has been reappropriated by some as a term of pride and group identity.
The first documented appearance of the word “nerd” is as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which the narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too” for his imaginary zoo. The slang meaning of the term dates back to 1951, when Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for “drip” or “square” in Detroit, Michigan. By the early 1960s, usage of the term had spread throughout the United States, and even as far as Scotland. At some point, the word took on connotations of bookishness and social ineptitude.
An alternate spelling, as nurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s or early ’70s. Author Philip K. Dick claimed to have coined this spelling in 1973, but its first recorded use appeared in a 1965 student publication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oral tradition there holds that the word is derived from “knurd” (“drunk” spelled backwards), which was used to describe people who studied rather than partied. On the other hand, the variant “gnurd” was in wide use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology throughout the first half of the 1970s.
Other theories of the word’s origin suggest that it may derive from Mortimer Snerd, Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy, or the Northern Electric Research and Development (N.E.R.& D.) Laboratories in Ontario (now Nortel). The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the word is an alteration of the 1940s term nert (meaning “stupid or crazy person”), which is itself an alteration of “nut”.
The term was popularized in the 1970s by its heavy use in the sitcom Happy Days.
The stereotypical nerd is intelligent but socially and physically awkward. They typically appear either to lack confidence or to be indifferent or oblivious to the negative perceptions held of them by others, with the result that they become frequent objects of scorn, ridicule, bullying, and social isolation.
Some nerds show a pronounced interest in subjects which others tend to find dull or boring, too complex and difficult to comprehend, or overly mature for their age, especially topics related to science, mathematics and technology. Conversely, nerds may show an interest in activities that are viewed by their peers as stupid and immature for their age, such as trading cards, comic books, television programs, films, role-playing games, video games, and other things relating to fantasy and science fiction. Nerds are often portrayed as physically unfit, and either obese or very thin. Nerds are also sometimes portrayed as having symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder such as showing extreme interest in rules. Comparisons to Asperger syndrome are common, due to the tendency to engage in intense, specific interests and to experience difficulty in social situations.
Particularly in the case of males, nerds may be perceived as being uninterested in traditionally masculine activities such as sports (either participating in or following) or “locker room talk”. While nerds are not necessarily asexual, they are typically depicted as having difficulty attracting sexual partners and may actually be experiencing involuntary celibacy. This tends to be more of a problem for male nerds due to traditional gender roles requiring males to “make the first move” as opposed to expecting to be approached by the opposite sex. Reasons may include shyness or lack of conversational skills outside of certain subjects of interest.
In film and television depictions, nerds are disproportionately white males with very large glasses, braces, severe acne and pants highly lifted up. It has been suggested by some, such as linguist Mary Bucholtz, that being a nerd may be a state of being “hyperwhite” and rejecting African-American culture and slang that “cool” white children use. However, after the Revenge of the Nerds movie franchise (with multicultural nerds), and the introduction of the Steve Urkel character on the television series Family Matters, nerds have been seen in all races and colors as well as more recently being a frequent young Asian male stereotype in North America. Portrayal of “nerd girls”, or Bluestockings, in films such as She’s Out of Control, Welcome to the Dollhouse and She’s All That depicts that smart but nerdy women might suffer later in life if they do not focus on improving their physical attractiveness.
Stereotypical nerd qualities have evolved in recent years, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration of their abilities. This is largely attributable to the rise of the computer industry, which has allowed many “nerdy” people (most notably Bill Gates) to accumulate large fortunes and other measures of social prestige. Some measure of nerdiness is allegedly considered desirable, as, to some, it suggests a person who is intelligent, respectful, interesting, and able to earn a large salary. Such views have arguably effected a waning emphasis on the social awkwardness of nerds, with more attention placed on their intelligence and academic enthusiasm.