A nerd is a person seen as overly intellectual, obsessive, introvert or lacking social skills. Such a person may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, little known, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical, abstract, or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities. Additionally, many so-called nerds are described as being shy, quirky, pedantic, and unattractive.
Originally derogatory, the term "nerd" was a stereotype, 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. 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. 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 or gnurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s or early 1970s. 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 (RPI). 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 (MIT) by 1965. 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.
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 a nerd, 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 nor 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."
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 males, portrayed as being physically unfit, either overweight or skinny due to lack of physical exercise. 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 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.
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.
The rise of Silicon Valley and the American computer industry at large has allowed many so-called nerdy people to accumulate large fortunes. Many stereotypically nerdy interests, such as superhero and science fiction works, are now popular culture hits. 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.
I think that the figure of the nerd provides a beautiful template for analyzing the transformation of the disciplinary society into the control society. The nerd, in his cliche form, first stepped out upon the world stage in the mid-1970s, when we were beginning to hear the first rumblings of what would become the Cambrian explosion of the information society. The nerd must serve as comic relief for the future-anxieties of Western society. [...] The germ cell of burgeoning nerdism is difference. The yearning to be understood, to find opportunities to share experiences, to not be left alone with one's bizarre interest. At the same time one derives an almost perverse pleasure from wallowing in this deficit. Nerds love deficiency: that of the other, but also their own. Nerds are eager explorers, who enjoy measuring themselves against one another and also compete aggressively. And yet the nerd's existence also comprises an element of the occult, of mystery. The way in which this power is expressed or focused is very important.
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. Additionally, the storyline presaged, and may have helped inspire, the "nerd pride" that emerged in the 1990s. American Splendor regular Toby Radloff claims this was the movie that inspired him to become "The Genuine Nerd from Cleveland, Ohio." 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.
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. In Spain, Nerd Pride Day has been observed on May 25 since 2006, the same day as Towel Day, another somewhat nerdy holiday. The date was picked because it's the anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope.
...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.
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.
Although originally being predominately an American stereotype, Nerd culture has grown across the globe and is now more acceptable and common than ever. Australian events such as Oz Comic-Con (a large comic book and Cosplay convention, similar to San Diego Comic-Con International) and Supernova, are incredibly popular events among the culture of people who identify themselves as nerds. In 2016, Oz Comic-Con in Perth saw almost 20,000 cos-players and comic book fans meet to celebrate the event, hence being named a "professionally organised Woodstock for geeks".
Nerds are often the target of bullying due to a range of reasons that may include physical appearance or social background. Paul Graham has suggested that the reason nerds are frequently singled out for bullying is their indifference to popularity, in the face of a youth culture that views popularity as paramount. However, research findings suggest that bullies are often as socially inept as their academically better-performing victims, and that popularity fails to confer protection from bullying. Other commentators have pointed out that pervasive harassment of intellectually-oriented youth began only in the mid-twentieth century and some have suggested that its cause involves jealousy over future employment opportunities and earning potential.
In popular culture
- Film and printed media have seen several memorable nerdy characters including, but not limited to: Anthony Michael Hall's character of Brian Johnson in The Breakfast Club, Dr Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds, Fogell from Superbad, Peter Parker from the Spider-Man franchise, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter franchise, Lewis Skolnick and Gilbert Lowe from Revenge of the Nerds, Steve Carell's character of Andy Stitzer in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Dilton Doiley from the Archie comics franchise, and various characters in The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley.
- The parody song and music video "White & Nerdy" by "Weird Al" Yankovic also prominently features and celebrates aspects of nerd culture.
- "Nerd | Define Nerd at Dictionary.com", "Dictionary.com, LLC" 2011, accessed May 13, 2011.
- nerd, n. Oxford English Dictionary online. Third edition, September 2003; online version September 2011. First included in Oxford English Dictionary second edition, 1989.
- "Definition of NERD", Merriam-Webster, 2011, retrieved 2011-11-23
- 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.
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, p. 1212, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston – New York – London, 1992.
- Geisel, Theodor Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo, p. 47, Random House Books for Young Readers. New York, 1950.
- Newsweek 'Jelly Tot, Square Bear-Man!' (1951-10-8), p. 28
- Gregory J. Marsh in Special Collections at the Swarthmore College library as reported in Humanist Discussion Group Archived 2008-01-31 at the Wayback Machine. (1990-6-28) Vol. 4, No. 0235.
- Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail (1957-02-10).
- The many spellings of Nurd, Fall 1970 (revised online 2015)
- Current Slang: A Quarterly Glossary of Slang Expressions Currently In Use (1971). Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1971, p. 17
- Personal Correspondence (1973-9-4) reported on the web
- RPI Bachelor (1965), V14 #1
- More Mathematical People (D.J. Albers, J.L. Alexanderson and C. Reid), p. 105 (1990). Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
- Golly, By (February 3, 1971). "The Daily Reamer – Volume 69, No 20" (PDF). The Tech. The Tech. p. 6. Retrieved 2014-05-13.
- Harper, Douglas. "nerd". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- 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
- Anderegg, Mr (12 January 2008). "In Praise of Nerds". The Economist.
- Graham, Paul. "Why Nerds are Unpopular".
- Lori Kendall. "OH NO! I'M A NERD!": Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender Society. 14: 256. (2000)
- Ron Eglash. Race, Sex, and Nerds. Social Text. 20: 49 (2002)
- Benjamin Nugent (July 29, 2007). "Who's a Nerd, Anyway?". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-28.
- 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.
- 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.
- Woyke, Elizabeth (19 September 2008). "Celebrity Nerds Come Out". Forbes. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Cringely, Robert. "Triumph of the Nerds: A History of the Computer". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Kaestle, Thomas (14 April 2016). "The story of Traceroute, about a Leitnerd's quest: Johannes Grenzfurthner talks about Traceroute". Boing Boing. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
- Singer, Jon (2005-08-28). "Carradine hits the jackpot as Lewis Skolnick". Lumino. Archived from the original on 2016-01-01
- 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]
- Hafner, Katie (29 August 1993). "Woman, Computer Nerd – and Proud". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
- Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (2000). "Some Rules Kids Won't Learn in School". Retrieved 2007-07-22
- Tassara-Twigg, Noemi (24 May 2010). "Celebrate Geek Pride Day 2010". Retrieved 20 April 2014.
- Price, Matthew (25 May 2010). "Happy Geek/Nerd Pride Day!". NewsOK.com. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
- Helmenstine, Anne Marie (25 May 2012). "Happy Geek Pride Day!". About.com. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
- YouTube. youtube.com. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
- FC Zulu, 2004-09-13, retrieved 2016-05-16
- Westcott, Kathryn (16 November 2012). "Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?". News Magazine. BBC. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
- "Fantasy fans to flock Perth Oz Comic-Con spectacle". ABC News. 2016-04-01. Retrieved 2016-05-16.
- Nicholson, Christie (2010-07-10). "Bully or Victim? More Similar Than We Might Think". Scientific American (supplemental podcast). Retrieved 2017-07-06.
- Mannvi Singh (April 1, 2014). "Becoming More Popular Doesn't Protect Teens From Bullying". NPR Health Shots - Health News From NPR. Retrieved 2017-07-06.
- Evans, RJ. "A Short Illustrated History of the Nerd". Retrieved 2017-07-06.
- Thanks Always Returns. "The origin of nerds". Retrieved 2017-07-06.
- Thanks Always Returns. "The purpose of nerds". Retrieved 2017-07-06.
- McKee, Ryan (2010-08-06). "Top 25 Geeks in Movies: The Few, the Obsessed, the Socially Awkward". AOL Moviefone. Retrieved 2016-05-16.
- Williams, Justin A. (2015). The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Cambridge University Press. p. 227. ISBN 9781107037465.
- Nugent, Benjamin (July 1, 2008). "Field Guide to The Nerd: It's All Geek to Me". Psychology Today. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
- 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.
|Look up nerd in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- "The Well-Dressed Geek: Media Appropriation and Subcultural Style" (Paper by Jason Tocci presented at the MIT5 conference. PDF, 180kb).
- "Why Nerds are Unpopular", an essay by Paul Graham about the conformist society in American high schools.
- "The Nerds Have Won", an article by Brian Hayes in American Scientist, September–October 2000.