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A nerd is a person seen as overly intellectual, obsessive, introverted, 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 niche topics such as science fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities.[1][2][3] Additionally, many so-called nerds are described as being shy, quirky, pedantic, and unattractive.[4]

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.[5]


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][6][7] The slang meaning of the term dates to 1951.[8] That year, Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for drip or square in Detroit, Michigan.[9] By the early 1960s, usage of the term had spread throughout the United States, and even as far as Scotland.[10][11] At some point, the word took on connotations of bookishness and social ineptitude.[6]

An alternate spelling,[12] as nurd or gnurd, also began to appear in the mid-1960s, or early 1970s.[13] 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).[14][15] 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. The term gnurd (spelled with the "g") was in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by the year 1965.[16] The term "nurd" was also in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as early as 1971.[17]

According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word is an alteration of the 1940s term "nert " (meaning "stupid or crazy person"), which is in itself an alteration of "nut" (nutcase).[8]

The term was popularized in the 1970s by its heavy use in the sitcom Happy Days.[18]



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,[19] and cause otherwise appealing people to be considered 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."[20]

Stereotypical nerd appearance, often lampooned in caricatures, can include very large glasses, dental braces, buck teeth, severe acne and pants worn high at the waist. Following suit of popular use in emoticons, Unicode released in 2015 its "Nerd Face" character, featuring some of those stereotypes: 🤓 (code point U+1F913). In the media, many nerds are males, portrayed as being physically unfit, either overweight or skinny due to lack of physical exercise.[21][22] 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.[23] 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 East 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.[24]

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 African 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".[25]

Some of the stereotypical behaviors associated with the "nerd" stereotype have correlations with the traits of Asperger syndrome or other autism spectrum conditions.[26]


The rise of Silicon Valley and the American computer industry at large has allowed many so-called "nerdy people" to accumulate large fortunes and influence media culture. Many stereotypically nerdy interests, such as superhero, fantasy and science fiction works, are now international popular culture hits.[27] 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.[28]

Johannes Grenzfurthner, researcher, self-proclaimed nerd and director of nerd documentary Traceroute, reflects on the emergence of nerds and nerd culture:

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.

— Johannes Grenzfurthner, interviewed by Thomas Kaestle, Boing Boing, 14 April 2016[29]

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.[30] Additionally, the storyline presaged, and may have helped inspire, the "nerd pride" that emerged in the late 1990s.[speculation?] American Splendor regular Toby Radloff claims this was the movie that inspired him to become "The Genuine Nerd from Cleveland, Ohio."[31] 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[32]


Individuals who are labeled as "nerds" are often the target of bullying due to a range of reasons that may include physical appearance or social background.[21] Paul Graham has suggested that the reason nerds are frequently singled out for bullying is their indifference to popularity or social context, in the face of a youth culture that views popularity as paramount.[20] However, research findings suggest that bullies are often as socially inept as their academically better-performing victims,[33] and that popularity fails to confer protection from bullying.[34] Other commentators have pointed out that pervasive harassment of intellectually-oriented youth began only in the mid-twentieth century.[35][36]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ "Nerd | Define Nerd at Dictionary.com", "Dictionary.com, 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 23 November 2011
  4. ^ DA Kinney (1993). "From nerds to normals: The recovery of identity among adolescents from middle school to high school". Sociology of Education. 66 (1): 21–40. doi:10.2307/2112783. JSTOR 2112783.
  5. ^ Tracy L. Cross (2005). "Nerds and Geeks: Society's Evolving Stereotypes of Our Students With Gifts and Talents". Social/Emotional Needs. 28 (4).
  6. ^ a b American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, p. 1212, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston – New York – London, 1992.
  7. ^ Geisel, Theodor Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo, p. 47, Random House Books for Young Readers. New York, 1950.
  8. ^ a b Harper, Douglas. "nerd". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  9. ^ Newsweek 'Jelly Tot, Square Bear-Man!' (1951-10-8), p. 28
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail (1957-02-10).
  12. ^ The many spellings of Nurd, Fall 1970 (revised online 2015)
  13. ^ Current Slang: A Quarterly Glossary of Slang Expressions Currently In Use (1971). Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1971, p. 17
  14. ^ Personal Correspondence (1973-9-4) reported on the web
  15. ^ RPI Bachelor (1965), V14 #1
  16. ^ More Mathematical People (D.J. Albers, J.L. Alexanderson and C. Reid), p. 105 (1990). Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  17. ^ "Johnson honors Nurd for saving Institute" (PDF), The Daily Reamer, Volume 69, No. 20, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 6, 3 February 1971, archived from the original (PDF) on 22 October 2020, retrieved 14 May 2014.
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Anderegg, Mr (12 January 2008). "In Praise of Nerds". The Economist.
  20. ^ a b Graham, Paul. "Why Nerds are Unpopular".
  21. ^ a b Lori Kendall. "OH NO! I'M A NERD!": Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender Society. 14: 256. (2000)
  22. ^ Ron Eglash. Race, Sex, and Nerds. Social Text. 20: 49 (2002)
  23. ^ Benjamin Nugent (29 July 2007). "Who's a Nerd, Anyway?". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 28 July 2007.
  24. ^ 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 23 July 2009.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ "High-Functioning Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome".
  27. ^ Woyke, Elizabeth (19 September 2008). "Celebrity Nerds Come Out". Forbes. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  28. ^ Cringely, Robert. "Triumph of the Nerds: A History of the Computer". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Singer, Jon (28 August 2005). "Carradine hits the jackpot as Lewis Skolnick". Lumino. Archived from the original on 1 January 2016.
  31. ^ Hensley, Dennis (2 September 2003). "Revenge of the nerd: American Splendor's Toby Radloff is out and proud about his sexuality and his nerddom". The Advocate. Archived from the original on 17 November 2007. Retrieved 22 July 2007.
  32. ^ Hafner, Katie (29 August 1993). "Woman, Computer Nerd – and Proud". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
  33. ^ Nicholson, Christie (10 July 2010). "Bully or Victim? More Similar Than We Might Think". Scientific American (Supplemental Podcast). Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  34. ^ Mannvi Singh (1 April 2014). "Becoming More Popular Doesn't Protect Teens From Bullying". NPR Health Shots – Health News From NPR. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  35. ^ Evans, RJ. "A Short Illustrated History of the Nerd". Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  36. ^ Thanks Always Returns. "The origin of nerds". Archived from the original on 7 September 2017. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
  37. ^ Williams, Justin A. (2015). The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Cambridge University Press. p. 227. ISBN 9781107037465.
  38. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (2000). "Some Rules Kids Won't Learn in School". Retrieved 22 July 2007.
  39. ^ Tassara-Twigg, Noemi (24 May 2010). "Celebrate Geek Pride Day 2010". Archived from the original on 21 April 2014. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  40. ^ Price, Matthew (25 May 2010). "Happy Geek/Nerd Pride Day!". NewsOK.com. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  41. ^ Helmenstine, Anne Marie (25 May 2012). "Happy Geek Pride Day!". About.com. Archived from the original on 21 April 2014. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  42. ^ "Fantasy fans to flock Perth Oz Comic-Con spectacle". ABC News. 1 April 2016. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
  43. ^ "A Note on Nerdfighters". The New Yorker. 13 March 2013. Retrieved 20 September 2020.

Further reading

External links