Etymology of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ not so square after all

Oh, how often those ridiculed as puny, studious or unfashionable bear the brunt of such names as dweeb, geek and nerd. OK, so I’m a word nerd. A geek. A drip and a square. But has anyone ever wondered about the origins of these words or even contemplated that, originally, geek actually meant the opposite of what it means today?

Geek

Although the exact origin of geek is unclear, it is thought to be a variant of the Low German geck, meaning “a fool, simpleton; one who is befooled or derided, a dupe”. Used primarily as slang in North America, geek was originally used to refer to “a person, a fellow, esp. one who is regarded as foolish, offensive, worthless, etc.”

That’s a pretty far cry from the depreciative form more common today to refer to “an overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit”.

Jack Kerouac, in 1957, referred to an “unbelievable number of events almost impossible to remember, including‥Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students and big geek questions to answer”.

In 1980, E. A. Folb, in Runnin’ Down Some Lines: Language and Culture of Black Teenagers (239), used geek to denote a “studious person”. I’m sure you know the type: the bucktoothed, slide-rule-toting, beanie-and-pocket-protector-wearing, bespectacled image we so readily identify with geek today. Or is that nerd?

Nerd

In my parents’ day, I’d likely have been called a drip or a square. However, according to the October 28, 1951, issue of Newsweek, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

Regrettably? Regrettably?!

How can anyone who grew up with, and adored, the stories of Dr. Seuss possibly be deemed a nerd? That’s where my love of words and wordplay started! Yet, it was Seuss himself who coined the term in his 1950 If I ran the Zoo. A fictional animal, the nerd was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression”.

To be honest, I guess I disapprove of the unlikely explanation that nerd is a euphemistic alteration of turd. I mean, what a load of…

Never mind.

The suggestion that the word is back-slang for drunk is also unsupported by the spellings, as is derivation from the name of Mortimer Snerd, a dummy used by American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in the 1930s.

Today, like geek, nerd, used as derogatory slang, refers to “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious. Now also: spec. a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication”.

Funny, I don’t consider myself insignificant or foolish. Socially inept, maybe. Studious, yes. One who pursues etymology with obsessive dedication, definitely.

But…

Before you decide to put down a nerd, just remember Lewis Skolnick and Gilbert Lowe (from the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds). You can burn down our frat house, but, ultimately, we, those who have “ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down” are the champions.

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