A Historical Timeline of the word “Nerd”

the stone age

1930s: The interjection “nerts”, used because some consider it vulgar to blurt out “nuts”, enjoys some popularity.

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”, but it definitely spread from southeast Michigan.

1965: The spelling “nurd” comes into use, and predominates for some time.  The word is by now somewhat commonly connected with bookish intellectual types, but is still little known to most of the public.  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.
Steve “Slug” Russell, creator of the first video game, at MIT

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.
Bjo Trimble (left), “the woman who saved Star Trek”

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: 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.

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.

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 media.

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:
see also

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.

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