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For other uses, see Nerd (disambiguation).

Nerd (adjective: nerdy) is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or lacking social skills. They may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, obscure, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.[1][2][3] Additionally, many nerds are described as being shy, quirky, and unattractive,[4] and may have difficulty participating in, or even following, sports. Though originally derogatory, "Nerd" is a stereotypical term, but as with other pejoratives, it has been reclaimed and redefined 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.[3][5][6] The slang meaning of the term dates to the next year, 1951, when Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for "drip" or "square" in Detroit, Michigan.[7] By the early 1960s, usage of the term had spread throughout the United States, and even as far as Scotland.[8][9] At some point, the word took on connotations of bookishness and social ineptitude.[5]

An alternate spelling,[10] as nurd or gnurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s or early 1970s.[11] Author Philip K. Dick claimed to have coined the nurd spelling in 1973, but its first recorded use appeared in a 1965 student publication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.[12][13] Oral tradition there holds that the word is derived from "knurd" ("drunk" spelled backward), which was used to describe people who studied rather than partied. The term gnurd (spelled with the "g") was in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by 1965.[14] The term nurd was also in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as early as 1971 but was used in the context for the proper name of a fictional character in a satirical "news" article.[15]

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".[16]

The term was popularized in the 1970s by its heavy use in the sitcom Happy Days.[17]

Typical stereotype[edit]

Because of the nerd stereotype, many smart people are often thought of as nerdy. This belief can be harmful, as it can cause high-school students to "switch off their lights" out of fear of being branded as one of them,[18] and cause otherwise appealing people to be nerdy simply for their intellect. It was once thought that intellectuals were nerdy because they were envied. However, Paul Graham stated in his essay, "Why Nerds are Unpopular", that intellect is neutral, meaning that you are neither loved or despised for it. He also states that it is only the correlation that makes smart teens automatically seem nerdy, and that a nerd is someone that is not socially adept enough. Additionally, he says that the reason why many smart kids are unpopular is that they "don't have time for the activities required for popularity."[19]

A child dressed up as a stereotypical nerd

Stereotypical "nerd" appearance, often lampooned in caricatures, includes very large glasses, braces, severe acne and pants worn high at the waist. In the media, many nerds are white males, portrayed as being physically unfit, either overweight or skinny due to lack of physical exercise .[20][21] 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.[22] 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 or Indian male stereotype in North America. Portrayal of "nerd girls", 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.[23]

In the United States, a 2010 study published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication indicated that Asian Americans are perceived as most likely to be nerds, followed by White Americans, while non-White Hispanics and Black Americans were perceived as least likely to be nerds. These stereotypes stem from concepts of Orientalism and Primitivism, as discussed in Ron Eglash's essay Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters.[24] Among Whites, Jews are perceived as the most nerdy and are stereotyped in similar ways to Asians.[25]

Nerd pride[edit]

The rise of Silicon Valley and the American computer industry at large has allowed many "nerdy" people to accumulate large fortunes. Many stereotypically "nerdy" interests, such as superhero and science fiction works, are now popular culture hits.[26] Some measures of nerdiness are now allegedly considered desirable, as, to some, it suggests a person who is intelligent, respectful, interesting, and able to earn a large salary. Stereotypical nerd qualities are evolving, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration of their differences.[27]

In the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds Robert Carradine worked to embody the nerd stereotype; in doing so, he helped create a definitive image of nerds.[28] Additionally, the storyline presaged, and may have helped inspire, the "nerd pride" that emerged in the 1990s.[citation needed] American Splendor regular Toby Radloff claims this was the movie that inspired him to become "The Genuine Nerd from Cleveland, Ohio."[29] In the American Splendor film, Toby's friend, American Splendor author Harvey Pekar, was less receptive to the movie, believing it to be hopelessly idealistic, explaining that Toby, an adult low income file clerk, had nothing in common with the middle class kids in the film who would eventually attain college degrees, success, and cease being perceived as nerds. Many, however, seem to share Radloff's view, as "nerd pride" has become more widespread in the years since. MIT professor Gerald Sussman, for example, seeks to instill pride in nerds:

My idea is to present an image to children that it is good to be intellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual. I want every child to turn into a nerd - where that means someone who prefers studying and learning to competing for social dominance, which can unfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection.

— Gerald Sussman, quoted by Katie Hafner, The New York Times, 29 August 1993[30]

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, refers to himself as "an openly nerdy man"[31] and has written of a "Jock/Nerd Theory of History".[32] He believes that income redistribution is a tactic by Jocks to prevent Nerds from gaining power over them.[citation needed]

The popular computer-related news website Slashdot uses the tagline "News for nerds. Stuff that matters." The Charles J. Sykes quote "Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one" has been popularized on the Internet and incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates.[33] In Spain, Nerd Pride Day has been observed on May 25 since 2006,[34] the same day as Towel Day, another somewhat nerdy holiday.[35] The date was picked because it's the anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope.[36]

The Green brothers, John Green and Hank Green of the popular YouTube account vlogbrothers have commonly referred to themselves as nerds, and much of their online personas are that of nerdy appeal. In fact, the name their fans have adapted reflects the popularity of this nerdy subculture, "Nerdfighters" or "Nerdfighteria."[citation needed]

An episode from the animated series Freakazoid, titled "Nerdator", includes the use of nerds to power the mind of a Predator-like enemy. Towards the middle of the show, he gave this speech. :

...most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.[37]

The Danish reality TV show FC Zulu, known in the internationally franchised format as FC Nerds, established a format wherein a team of nerds, after two or three months of training, competes with a professional soccer team.[citation needed]

Some commentators consider that the word is devalued when applied to people who adopt a sub-cultural pattern of behaviour, rather than being reserved for people with a marked ability.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Nerd | Define Nerd at", ", LLC" 2011, accessed May 13, 2011.
  2. ^ nerd, n. Oxford English Dictionary online. Third edition, September 2003; online version September 2011. First included in Oxford English Dictionary second edition, 1989.
  3. ^ a b "Definition of NERD", Merriam-Webster, 2011, retrieved 2011-11-23 
  4. ^ DA Kinney (1993). "From nerds to normals: The recovery of identity among adolescents from middle school to high school". Sociology of Education (Sociology of Education) 66 (1): 21–40. doi:10.2307/2112783. JSTOR 2112783. 
  5. ^ a b American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, p. 1212, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston - New York - London, 1992
  6. ^ Geisel, Theodor Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo, p. 47, Random House Books for Young Readers, New York, 1950
  7. ^ Newsweek 'Jelly Tot, Square Bear-Man!' (1951-10-8), p. 28
  8. ^ Gregory J. Marsh in Special Collections at the Swarthmore College library as reported in Humanist Discussion Group (1990-6-28) Vol. 4, No. 0235.
  9. ^ Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail (1957-2-10)
  10. ^ The many spellings of Nurd, Fall 1970 (revised online 2015 )
  11. ^ Current Slang: A Quarterly Glossary of Slang Expressions Currently In Use (1971), Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1971, p. 17
  12. ^ Personal Correspondence (1973-9-4) reported on the web
  13. ^ RPI Bachelor (1965), V14 #1
  14. ^ More Mathematical People (D.J. Albers, J.L. Alexanderson and C. Reid), Pg 105 (1990), Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich
  15. ^ Golly, By (February 3, 1971). "The Daily Reamer - Volume 69, No 20, Pg 6" (PDF). The Tech. The Tech. Retrieved 2014-05-13. 
  16. ^ Harper, Douglas. "nerd". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  17. ^ Fantle, David; Johnson, Tom (November 2003), ""Nerd" is the Word: Henry Winkler, August 1981", Reel to Real: 25 Years of Celebrity Interviews, Badger Books Inc., pp. 239–242 
  18. ^ Anderegg, Mr (12 January 2008). "In Praise of Nerds". The Economist. 
  19. ^ Graham, Paul. "Why Nerds are Unpopular". 
  20. ^ Lori Kendall. "OH NO! I'M A NERD!": Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender Society. 14: 256. (2000)
  21. ^ Ron Eglash. Race, Sex, and Nerds. Social Text. 20: 49 (2002)
  22. ^ Benjamin Nugent (July 29, 2007). "Who’s a Nerd, Anyway?". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  23. ^ Gateward, Frances K.; Murray Pomerance (2002). Sugar, spice, and everything nice: cinemas of girlhood. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8143-2918-4. Retrieved 2009-07-23. 
  24. ^ Eglash, R. 'Race, Sex, And Nerds: FROM BLACK GEEKS TO ASIAN AMERICAN HIPSTERS'. Social Text 20.2 71 (2002): 49-64. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
  25. ^ Benjamin Nugent. "How Stereotypes of Jews and Asians Evolved into the Nerd". 
  26. ^ Woyke, Elizabeth (09/19/08). "Celebrity Nerds Come Out". Forbes. Retrieved 26 June 2012.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  27. ^ Cringely, Robert. "Triumph of the Nerds: A History of the Computer". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  28. ^ Singer, Jon (2005-08-28). "Carradine hits the jackpot as Lewis Skolnick". Lumino 
  29. ^ Hensley, Dennis (2003-09-02). "Revenge of the nerd: American Splendor's Toby Radloff is out and proud about his sexuality and his nerddom". The Advocate [dead link]
  30. ^ Hafner, Katie (29 August 1993). "Woman, Computer Nerd -- and Proud". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  31. ^ "Bryan Caplan". Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  32. ^ "Redistribution: Blocking the Revenge of the Nerds?". Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  33. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (2000). "Some Rules Kids Won't Learn in School". Retrieved 2007-07-22 
  34. ^ Tassara-Twigg, Noemi (24 May 2010). "Celebrate Geek Pride Day 2010". Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  35. ^ Price, Matthew (25 May 2010). "Happy Geek/Nerd Pride Day!". Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  36. ^ Helmenstine, Anne Marie (25 May 2012). "Happy Geek Pride Day!". Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  37. ^ YouTube. Retrieved 11 September 2015. 
  38. ^ Westcott, Kathryn (16 November 2012). "Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?". News Magazine (BBC). Retrieved 8 December 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bucholtz, Mary (1999). "‘Why be normal?’: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls". Language in Society 28: 203–23. doi:10.1017/s0047404599002043. 
  • Frayling, Christopher (2005). Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema. Reaktion Books. 
  • Genuine Nerd (2006) - Feature-length documentary on Toby Radloff.
  • Kendall, Lori (1999). "'The Nerd Within': Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among Computer-Using Men". The Journal of Men's Studies 7 (3): 353–69. 
  • ——— (1999). "Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in U.S. Popular Culture". International Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (2): 260–83. doi:10.1177/136787799900200206. 
  • ——— (2000). "'Oh No! I'm a Nerd!': Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum". Gender & Society 14 (2): 256–74. doi:10.1177/089124300014002003. 
  • Newitz, A. & Anders, C. (Eds) She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. Seal Press, 2006.
  • Nugent, Benjamin (2008). American Nerd: The Story of My People. New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-0-7432-8801-9. 
  • Okada, Toshio (1996), Otaku Gaku Nyumon [Introduction to Otakuology] (in Japanese), Tokyo: Ohta Verlag .

External links[edit]