I read in Time or The Week that “nerd” was invented by Seuss in “If I Ran the Zoo.”
This struck me as highly unlikely. Why would the world pick this one wacky name out of a book full of nonsensical animal names and use it ad nauseum to describe me and my brethren?
They have an extensive etymology for this one. Noting that they find no evidence of the word between Zoo in 1950 and a 1957 Glasgow newspaper entry on American slang and then nothing again until 1970.
The OED (which also says maybe) suggests but dismisses a derivation from Mortimer Snerd, the 1930s puppet.
After Suess in 1950, it does have a
1951 citation: 1951 Newsweek 8 Oct. 28 In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.
It seems very unlikely to me that a year after the appearance of If I Ran the Zoo the word would be in common parlance in Detroit. True, it was published in Redbook, but were Redbook readers likely to go around calling people nerds?But who knows?
Not the OED, which put out this plea:
Wanted: printed evidence before 1951; information of the word’s origin
The first nerd was tracked down to 1951. The previous year Dr Seuss’s story If I ran the zoo included a picture of a ‘nerd’. Just chance? There are other explanations circulating. Earlier evidence would scotch the Seuss theory — or maybe it’s true?
Partridge’s slang book has several more citations, but none before 1950.
I decided to go all OzandEnds on this and GoogleBook it. I searched only in pre-1950 books:
I got LOTS of hits. But many seemed to be bad scans of the word NEED: “the Lord Hath nerd of him.”
There were some likely HERDS as well: “the nerd was given no grain.” All these false-positives make it hard to look for real NERDS.
Nerd did turn up in an 1899 book on Persian history and apparently referred to a backgammon-like game.
That seems like an unlikely source for either Seuss or a Glasgow reporter.
And it also seems to be Sanskrit/Hebrew/Greek word related to a nice-smelling plant.
And it may be NORTH in several other languages.
So then I tried 1950-1960 books:
I did find something possibly new here. A definition in what appears to be a 1965 Foriegn Service slang listing. It makes “nerd” the synonym of “fink and “scuzz,” defining them as “a foolish, erratic person.”
Not preSeuss, but it does fill in the gap between 1957 and 1970.
What did I learn? very little. I highly doubt the Seuss theory, though.
I also think Google needs to put some serious work into their scanning and text recognition software. So many, many needs and herds were garbled. Obviously many other words are getting garbled, too, so that the books are not quite as searchable as they might be.
Filed under: kidlit, Uncategorized