nerd also nurd (nûrd)
1. A foolish, inept, or unattractive person.
2. A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
Word History: The first known occurrence of the word nerd, undefined but illustrated, dates from 1950 and is found in If I Ran the Zoo, a children's book by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel). The book's narrator lists various imaginary creatures that he would keep in the zoo if he were allowed to run it, whatever objections other people might raise to his projects: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" (The nerd is a small humanoid creature looking comically angry.) The next known attestation of nerd appears in the October 8, 1951, issue of Newsweek, in which the slang of American youth is described: "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve." Authorities disagree on whether the two words—the name of Dr. Seuss's creature and the 1950s teenage slang term—are related. Some maintain that Dr. Seuss is the true originator of nerd and that the word nerd ("comically unpleasant creature") was picked up by the six-year-olds of 1950 and quickly passed on to their older siblings, who restricted and specified the meaning to the most comically obnoxious creature of their own class, a "square." Others claim that there is no connection between the two and propose other origins for nerd, such as an alteration of the word turd. It has also been suggested that nerd comes from Mortimer Snerd, the name of a dummy depicting a comically stupid yokel that was used by the American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, one of the most popular performers of the 1930s and 1940s. In support of this theory, the noted scholar of American slang J.E. Lighter points out that Mortimer Snerd was used in a 1941 work as a nickname for a fellow of the kind that might today be called nerdy. Strong evidence for any of these theories is lacking, however, and the ultimate origin of nerd remains unknown.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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