A short history of Geeks and Nerds……

Computer fanatics seem to attract pejorative words to describe them. (Now why should that be?). More often than not, they are words previously known in other contexts, but given new strength and life in the computer age. Geek and nerd both come into this category.

The online New Hacker’s Dictionary has this graphic description of the computer geek:
One who fulfils all the dreariest negative stereotypes about hackers: an asocial, malodorous, pasty faced monomaniac with all the personality of a cheese grater.

From about 1500 up to the beginning of the twentieth century in some dialects,geek (originally from Low German) was used to describe a fool or simple person. It was used in several of Shakespeare’s plays and by other literary masters. Its fortunes turned for the worse when it transformed into geek in the American slang of the early years of the twentieth century. As is so often the case with slang words, it seems to have had a variety of meanings. One of them in general slang is ‘man, fellow’ — Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of the Underworld guesses that it might be formed from an amalgamation of gee, ‘guy’ in slang, plus bloke, ‘man’.This is unlikely, as the word is principally American, and bloke is essentially British. More convincing is the attribution to carnival slang. Circus performers who took to drugs or alcohol slipped down the jobs available until they reached rock bottom: the job of the geek. Webster’s dictionary records its meaning then as being a carnival (wild man’whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake. From such a source the term reached a wider public through William Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley. It was published in 1946 and subsequently made into a film with Tyrone Power. Yet another sense for geek is recorded by Random House lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, that of‘a socially awkward or offensive person who is overly intellectual’.

Whichever of these various meanings you take, none is particularly complimentary. Small wonder, then, that it was applied disparagingly to the computer geek from the start of the electronic revolution. By an inverted twist, from about 1990 it has been used by computer people of other computer people as a term of praise. In itself it is quite a common phenomenon to take a term of abuse and use it for self-reference and protest: blacks have called themselves niggers , homosexuals dykes, queers and fags. Many highly respectable Conservatives probably do not realise that Tory was once a term of abuse, used alongside robber, murderer, despicable savage, outlaw, ass and idiot (to name just a few). Nerd is similar in meaning and equally uncomplimentary. It has been around for a much shorter time, however. The first printed record is in 1950 as the name for a fanciful creature in the children’s book If I Ran the Zoo by Dr Seuss:

And then, just to show them, Til sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!

The trouble with this as the likely origin is that it is a very rapid transition from a children’s rhyme to a pejorative term, for it is only one year later in 1951 that it is recorded with its slang meaning. There are lots of other attempts to account for it.Variant spellings prevalent at Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology in the 1960s were nurd and knurd. The former rhymes with turd and the latter is drunk spelt backwards.Very convenient.

A slighty more convincing explanation is one concerning a ventriloquist’s dummy. Edgar Bergen had a variety act featuring his brainy dummy, Mortimer Snerd. Their joint fame was such that they got a mention in 1941 in Bond and Anderson’s Flying T. Diary:
I discussed the P-40 flying characteristics with ‘Mortimer Snerd’ Shilling.
The possible change of Snerd to nerd is obvious, in its form, at least. The problem with regard to the sense development is that Snerd was an intelligent dummy, yet all the quotations up to the 1970s use nerd pejoratively in relation to a stupid person. There are no early references to bright but antisocial students, for instance. In this case, it seems best to admit that no one knows the origin. In any event, the current sense of‘a socially maladroit person, with above average intelligence and a tendency to obsession’ lends itself well to some computer types, and explains its frequent use in this context. In fact, a computer nerd is not far from the striking picture of the computer geek in the New Hacker’s Dictionary. What a pair they make!

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