9 March 2012

A Short Illustrated History of the Nerd

Where did the nerd originate, both as a word an individual and, possibly, a species? What were the original societal perceptions of the nerd? How have these changed over the decades? Enter the world of the nerd and discover for yourself this fascinating and light hearted illustrated history of the origin of the species. Darwin, eat your heart out.

First we need to address the very term ‘nerd’. What exactly is it? We know that it usually has derogatory connotations (though that may be changing, little by little). Usually a nerd was someone whose life passions were not shared by the majority of the population. Their heroes were not shared by the ubiquitous man in the street. In fact most people traditionally saw the interests of a nerd as strange and somewhat weird. However, with the advent of the internet, nerds have increased in number exponentially. The nerd herd has arrived.

Often at High School nerds were partly classified by their disinterest in sport and their acquisition of knowledge considered intellectual and somewhat esoteric by other student (who usually didn’t know what esoteric and intellectual mean, but hey). Rather than engaging in social activities the nerd could often be a loner. Occasionally they were lucky enough to meet others of their genus – Nerdus sapiens – and were allowed to take over a table in the cafeteria. This was not, as some would think, an attempt by the majority to include the small nerd herd. Rather, it was a form of deliberate and insidious social exclusion.

As such nerds were often considered outcasts by ‘normal’ members of society and the term, when used, was an insult. Such was the ferocity of public opinion against the nerd that slights against the herd were, for example, casually used as cheap marketing ploys (see above). Replace the word with a derogatory label based on gender, color or religion and you can see just how offensive the above advertisement truly was.

Nerds had therefore to cultivate their own language (see above) which could be understood only by other members of the herd. A rebuse interpretation of the above would be “As you get to the University of Chicago, the amount of sex expected approaches zero.” If you failed to snigger at that or had to wait for the ‘translation’ then you may not truly fit in to the nerd category. Many people would not accept the truth that nerds did, in fact, engage in the Wild Thing and until recently the nerd was often regarded as something as if not more virginal than a certain icon of Christianity. Even if there was always evidence of entire nerd families people were reluctant to accept the truth. Nerds have to come from somewhere, after all.

Nerds celebrate occasions just like any other substrata of society. They do make a special effort to make it their own, of course, but can often be misled and occasionally ignorant of the history of their own kind. To trace the origins of the word we must pay homage to that wordsmith of wordsmiths, Dr Seuss. His 1950 masterpiece ‘If I Ran the Zoo’ contains the first printed instance of the word. Gerald McGrew, the narrator, maintains he would collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker too” to be housed in his imaginary zoo. That was way back in 1950. As such, ‘If I Ran the Zoo’ can be seen as the Holy Book of Nerd-dom.

It is of little surprise that most nerds are unaware of their own history. After all, their obsessive behavior is such that they have been know to adapt rooms in their domiciles in order to pursue interests that many would find unusual or even unsettling. With the birth of mobile technology nerds are expanding the range of their territory with smartphones that have a capacity to suit their interests.  They have the opportunity to use technology to access a QR code generator download to plug them in to the digital world through text message codes and a URL shortener, all opportunities to live the nerd lifestyle outside the home. Dr Seuss had no idea what he had started and soon the word spread to wider (adult) society.

This was the beginning of the appearance of the nerd as a specific genus. It is strange that perhaps there had been no previous discovery of the word (though there was bluestocking for the female of the species way back in the eighteenth century). However, in 1951, Newsweek magazine pointed out the widespread use of the word in Michigan in the country known as the United States of America. The Army of Nerd was beginning to burgeon. Nerds were beginning to assert themselves.

The debate still rages as to whether nerds are born or are, rather, the result of some aspect of their upbringing. Many illiterates have produced nerd offspring and are unable to pinpoint what happened to make their child a nerd. Some blame themselves and they often create support groups in places such as New York and San Francisco. That is leaping forward a little in time, however. By the early years of the 60s, the term had gone viral and appeared throughout the USA in television, radio and other media. The word was reported in far away places such as Scotland (where people have red hair and strange accents). Globalization of the brand was not far off.

Nerd Pride was not yet born, however. It would not be until the late 1980s that Pride and Power would become part of the nerd lexicon and it would be the new century before it was formally celebrated. Back in the 60s the term still meant something ever so slightly different. The nerd had yet to step, like a shy and nervous gazelle, in to the full light of societal inspection. Instead, the word simply meant someone who was dull. Other synonyms at the time would include ‘drip’ or ‘square’. Man.

It was the decade of the seventies, one of grace, delicacy and high culture, where the word truly came of age. The decade that gave us The Osmond Phenomenon, Wonder Woman on TV and Gerald Ford as President also brought the word nerd to maturity. Social ineptitude, overt bookishness and an extreme interest in Star Trek came to embody the word. Or vice versa. It was a strange decade.

For a long time, for over a decade, the term nerd was not one that anyone – even the true nerd – would wish to have thrown towards them. Nerd Pride was not even nascent and the finger of nerd was spotty, bespectacled and book-toothed. The seventies, THE decade of the stereotype, saw the TV show Happy Days popularize the term like never before, even if its use was not in a fifties fashion (the decade in which the show was set). The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, is responsible for the misappropriation of the term. May he burn in Hell.

Nerds today should be aware, as they go about their way, of the debate that still surrounds the origin of the term. Many people claim, rightly or wrongly, that they originated it. Science Fiction author Philip K Dick (pictured above) claimed it as his own in 1973, even though he used the alternative spelling ‘nurd’. This was later discovered to be untrue, having appeared in that form as far before as 1965 in a student magazine from Troy, New York. Something of a shame for nerd culture, as only Mr Dick could possibly surpass Dr Seuss in terms of sheer kudos as Lord High Originator of the Term.

Although never recorded on paper (an old fashioned medium for education), many maintain that the word derived from the word ‘drunk’ spelled backwards. A ‘knurd’ would be someone who chose to study and be conscientious in their pursuit of academic achievement rather than being a hairy beer-swilling jock (whose very presence at a seat of academic learning makes them a walking talking oxymoron). Another version of the word, ‘gnurd’ was widespread during the early seventies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT is often considered to be a kind of beacon for the global nerd diaspora, so this may well have some truth in it.

Further etymological debate abounds. Some say that the word’s origins are inextricably linked with the popular 1930s – 1950s ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. One of his dummies was called Mortimer Snerd (seen with Bergen top right) and was a very dull witted chap. This is fairly close to the original meaning of the word however it was normally associated with boring rather than stupid. Others speculate that the word was adapted from the 1940s widespread term ‘nert’. This was itself born of the word ‘nut’ and meant someone who was stupid, crazy or both. This is improbable.

Thanks to the decade that was the seventies, the stereotypical image of the nerd was truly on the rise. In TV and film, the nerd is mostly presented as a white male (though in the UK’s ‘The IT Team’ one is Black British) with skin problems, braces and baggy trousers and thick lensed glasses. Some linguists posited the idea of the nerd as ‘hyper-white’ as the depiction of nerds often involved their usage of arcane and old fashioned language.

This supposed rejection of African-American oral culture through something approaching linguistic fascism by the nerd herd has, as an idea, been supremely trounced by the inexorable rise of the nerd of ethnicity and color in the nineties, noughties and beyond, ably assisted by Rajesh and Howard in The Big Bang Theory and Mickey in Doctor Who. The rainbow nerd is here to stay.

Concurrent to the rise of the rainbow nerd we must not nelect to mention the equally inexorable rise of the female of the species, aka the girl nerd.  Their story would make a thesis in itself.

Yet attempts by the larger mass of humanity to pigeonhole the nerd in to, say, a venn diagram, while useful to the layman cannot possibly show all the hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets which makes up the nerd as, in the twenty first century, nerd-dom is in a constant state of evolutionary flux.You may as well...

In spite of attempts to pigeonhole, the typical nerd can be noted by their obliviousness to negative perceptions of them by others. When their interests lie in subjects that are of mystery or little interest to others. This was often translated in to disdain and a deliberate attempt to socially exclude others. This disdain has been typically turned on its head as the nerd community reached something approaching critical social mass in the early 1990s. As technology, mathematics and science become more pivotal each year to the survival of Homo sapiens, so the nerds have increasingly become self aware of their own importance to the continuation and constitution of society. Nerd Pride was born. The nerd was King.

It would be remiss not to mention several movies and TV shows here, pivotal as they are to nerd culture. They are the holy grail of nerd existence and those fully wishing to understand the herd should take time out to study these TV shows in depth. Secondary study can also be found in role-playing games, notably Dungeons and Dragons. Tertiary academic pursuit in the understanding of the nerd should, necessarily involve Comic Book 101, Cosplay 101 and Trading Cards 101. Without a full and proper knowledge of these vital strands of their culture, the nerd can never be properly understood or appreciated.

The new century has brought with it new demands and those often best equipped to deal have been the nerds. The era of the nerd is upon us and the tenor of the age is one of celebration, almost, rather than of ostracization. This is the dawning of the age of nerdquarius. The computer and internet have helped in this and many nerds have accumulated wealth beyond the dreams of avarice as a result. The majority of parents do not now despair if their offspring show signs of nascent nerdiness. Rather, many see the nerd as intelligent, interesting and socially acceptable.

Some women see the male nerd as excellent marriage material, due as much to his genetics as his wealth. This evolution in attitudes has happened at the same time as a weakening in the societal emphasis on the negative side of nerd-dom. TV shows such as Ugly Betty and Chuck show the nerd in a positive – even sexually appealing light.

More and more, society in general believes that it is not a bad idea, after all, to be intellectual. Kids’ TV shows often encourage young viewers no to care about the anti-intellectual peer pressure of latter day Biffs. Incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates, the quote ‘Be nice to nerds. Chances are you will end up working for one’ has become common currency. There is even, in Spain, a for real Nerd Pride celebration which since 2006 has been celebrated on May 25.

Of course, all this means that there are now huge amounts of people who pretend to be nerds. This can be seen in the rise of Nerdcore as a whole. However, a word of warning to the pseudo-nerd. The real deal can sniff you out as an imposter immediately. If you borrow the image, concept and culture of the nerd so you can stand out as an individual, remember that this is a contradiction in terms to the Nerd de Verity. As such you will be shunned on discovery!

So, the nerd has come a long way in the sixty or so years since the word made its first appearance. What the next sixty years holds is anyone’s guess, but it promises to be more than interesting. Where the nerd herd goes next may well determine the future progress of humanity. Only time – and the internet – will tell.