4.0235 The Absolute Last Word on "Nerd" (1/34)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 28 Jun 90 17:45:30 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0235. Thursday, 28 Jun 1990.

Date: Wed, 27 Jun 90 16:53:14 EDT
From: Richard Ristow <AP430001@BROWNVM>
Subject: A confirmed nerd from Swarthmore

In followup to the exchange about the term "nerd", thanks to Gregory J.
Marsh in Special Collections at the Swarthmore College library. He
writes in response to an inquiry about its occurrence in a college
review in the early 1960s:

"I found Millard Fillmore Nerd in ... the 1961-62 Hamburg Show. ... In
[a] skit, 'The Dean's Office,' he is visiting the dean and is unable,
at first, to tell the dean his problem. The dean assumes he has broken
some college rule (drinking, women, etc.) and prepares to expel
Millard. Millard finally admits that his problem is that he has broken
no rules, and is hence a square."

He also feels that, in context, Nerd's name seems intended to imply his
squareness, and that therefore the term was previously known to the
show's authors and audience.

Marsh points out that, in addition to the 1950 attestation in Dr. Suess
previously mentioned on the list, the OED2 cites the Glasgow *Sunday
Mail* as defining "nerd" as "a square" in 1957; these are the only two
attestations before 1968, after which they become relatively common. He
cites Richard Martin's book *Jocks and Nerds* as attributing to Eric
Partridge a conjecture that the term originated in the 1920s or 30s.

The interesting picture this paints is that the term has existed in
roughly its modern sense since the late 1950s, but with limited
popularity, and that it gained wide usage around 1970. The television
show *Happy Days* is apparently anachronistic in making it common in
1950s slang, but may well have contributed to its more recent popularity.