A Historical Timeline of the word “Nerd”
the stone age
1929: The interjection “nerts”, possibly used because some consider it vulgar to blurt out “nuts”, comes into use and enjoys some popularity.
1938: Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (father of Candice) debuts a new dummy named Mortimer Snerd, which he plays as a slow-talking rural rube.
1940s: The singular “nert” evolves into a label applied to people, meaning someone who is nutty. Its use is not widespread, but has been attested among particular groups, one being surfers.
1950: Dr. Seuss tosses off the nonsense word
“nerd” for an imaginary animal in If I Ran The Zoo.
the iron age
1951: Teen slang in the Detroit area is reported to have adopted “nerd” as the fashionable new term for an uncool unhip person, otherwise known as a “drip” or “square”. This usage may or may not predate Dr. Seuss’s, and may or may not derive from “nert” or “Snerd”, but it definitely spread from southeast Michigan.
1960: The spelling “nurd” comes into use, and predominates for some time. It spreads widely among many of the younger generation, from hot-rodders to Yale students, but remains little known to most of the public.
1965: The word is by now somewhat commonly connected
with bookish intellectual types. At MIT the spelling “gnurd”
catches on. At this time, brainiacs at MIT and similar institutions are
known for backward clothing styles and outmoded crewcuts. Many of them
enjoy trashy science fiction.
1968: The “Save Star Trek” movement becomes
the first instance of successful mass activism to promote an agenda favorable to
nerds. The event fosters a lasting tendency for nerd culture to treat
fandom as something to be proselytized.
circa 1972: I hear the word for the first time when my dad (himself a high IQ pocket-protected engineer who had only recently ceased rocking a crewcut) declares Batman to be a nerd. It briefly becomes my little brother’s favorite new word.
1974: ABC debuts Happy Days, which is set in the 1950s, and popularizes the term by using it as a piece of period slang. They usually apply it not to smart or socially awkward characters, but to those who try to be cool and fail. Usage of the word among viewers skyrockets.
the golden age
1975: As the first home microcomputers are announced,
National Lampoon issues this poster, firmly establishing the stereotype for what
the word will now mean.
1977: In this watershed year, personal computers reach the mass market, which results in raising the visibility of computer and electronics experts as a recognizable social class, and over several years, accelerating the association of the word with them in particular. At the same time, Star Wars brings science fiction fandom into mainstream visibility, and a “New Wave” sound starts to emerge in rock&roll, coming from bands that are often overtly nerdy, in stark contrast to the previously popular “cock rock” style.
1981: By now several computer innovators have achieved wealth and become household names, thereby becoming role models and getting people to start thinking of nerds as winners. This trend will expand steadily for the rest of the century. New Wave rock moves into the mainstream, making stars of nerds like David Byrne and Thomas Dolby.
1984: The movie Revenge Of The Nerds is released. Some people with technical interests and skills immediately start to use the word as self-description, with a “nerd pride” movement becoming visible a few years later.
1993: As nerd pride becomes fairly well established, and
the mainstream connotation of the word slowly shifts from disdain to respect,
Professor Gerald Sussman, a former MIT hacker, tells a reporter “I want
every child to become a nerd.” (It’s around this time that one
of my nerd friends took to proclaiming “It’s our world now and you
can’t have it back!”)
1995: The World Wide Web popularizes mass usage of computer networks. Non-experts start creating websites in large numbers, and produce the beginnings of today’s distinct internet culture. In this environment, minor subcultures become highly visible, and the terms “nerd” and “geek” are increasingly used for those seen devoting excessive time and energy to fandoms, similarly to how the word “otaku” is used in Japan — a term which anime fandom is bringing to America around this time.
1996: The term “Geek Chic” appears, as high-fashion designers start to ape nerdy clothing styles for both sexes — even “flood” pants. Also, aintitcoolnews.com appears, and proves so influential that the entertainment industry soon begins recognizing nerd fans as both a powerful and well-organized interest group, and a lucrative audience demographic.
2000: The bursting of the dot-com stock bubble marks an endpoint to the “computer revolution” — it’s now just big business, not the definition of success and coolness. This removes some of the excessive glamor that has built up around nerds.
the plastic age
2001: The first iPod appears. Trendy coolness
in technology is now associated with entertainment rather than the business world.
2003: San Diego Comic-Con grows with extreme rapidity,
becoming the center of the various fandoms associated with nerds. The public
becomes steadily more aware of the breadth of “nerd culture”. It
becomes common for people start to describe themselves as nerds or geeks
based on their fandoms rather than on their skills or temperament — that
is, they define the label by what they consume rather than what they produce,
even as these fandoms increasingly merge into the mainstream. Opinion
pieces bemoaning mass nerdification start cropping up, mainly in conservative
2007: CBS debuts The Big Bang Theory, bringing the first broad depiction of all facets of nerd culture to a mass audience.
2009: As the word “geek” increasingly pushes
aside the word “nerd”, some nerd produces this handy diagram for
defining the difference between them:
2012: As supposedly nerdy interests such as superheroes and wizards take over pop culture, jock types also move into technical fields. “Brogrammers” are now a thing.
2013: “Movie Bob” Chipman sums up where we’ve arrived by observing that calling oneself a nerd has now become merely a “commodified lifestyle label”, saying nothing about your temperament or skills or social history. He also notes that today’s gamers and comic geeks have become as prone to bullying as their jock predecessors were.
2016: Director Paul Feig makes a Ghostbusters sequel
with a new all-female team. The backlash from an offended minority eventually
drives him to say, “Geek culture is home to some of the biggest assholes
I’ve ever met in my life.” Meanwhile, in the fashion world,
“geek chic” is more popular, and more literal, than ever.
Nowadays I’d say the best spirit of true nerddom isn’t being carried forward by “nerds” anymore... where I now see it flourishing best is among the crowd known as MAKERS.