When Did Being a Nerd Start Being Considered a Bad Thing?

2700 years ago or so, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was initiating a program to gather copies of all books in his empire to his library. ‘Bookworm’ would be an apt description for him, had books not been made out of clay making them slightly undesirable to worms… Anyway, back to good old Ashurbanipal, he liked to boast about having the complete mastery of all scribal arts. In his own words:

“I, Ashurbanipal, within the palace, understood the wisdom of Nabu [the god of learning]. All the art of writing of every kind. I made myself the master of them all. I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult to rightly use; I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood… such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt, remedies …  clever teachings … I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited within my palace for perusing and reading.”

So lets’ say he was not shy about being a nerd. That said, if you are picturing him wearing thick glasses and a bow tie… remember that he liked hunting lions for sport. That said, he used his prodigious learning and nerdery to good end, ruling what according to many scholars constitutes one of the first true empires in the world due to its administrative innovations. Its dominion reached Egypt to the west and Iran to the East, and dear nerdy Ashurbanipal was heralded by his subjects as equal to the gods.

Of course, in our time, overly obsessing over knowledge and intellectual things is often associated with social awkwardness and introvertness – and the culmination of all is the very definition of what we would call a nerd. Or is it?

To being with, what exactly makes a nerd a nerd? Is it the obsession with a certain theme? Like knowing everything about a specific genre, such as all spaceship types in Star Trek or the stats of the already alarming and still growing number of Pokémon, or perhaps religiously going to Comicon dressed up accordingly.

But a sports fan might know everything about his favourite sport, talk about the last match all week long and go to the stadium dressed up as his favourite football player. He is not generally considered a nerd. But at its core, is there really any difference? In the public consciousness, probably, as his interests are not categorized as “nerdy”. But how did this come to be?

Emerging in a Dr. Seuss’ book in 1950, the word ‘nerd’ found its way into slang language. More specifically, the first documented case of “nerd” was in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo.  The specific text was: “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too”. It was just one year after the Dr. Seuss book, in 1951 in a Newsweek magazine article, that we find the first documented case of “nerd” being used similarly to how we use it today, as as being synonymous with someone who was a “drip” or a “square”.

There are two popular hypotheses as to where the word derived from.  The first is that it was perhaps derived from “drunk” spelled backwards, “knurd”.  This was fitting to describe people who studied instead of going out with friends and partying.  A somewhat more popular hypothesis suggests that it came from a modification of “nut”, specifically “nert”, which meant “stupid or crazy person” and was common in the 1940s, directly before the term “nerd” showed up.  Whatever the case, the word nerd ended up becoming relatively popular in the 1960s and by the 1970s was hugely popularized by the TV show Happy Days, where it was used frequently.

Wherever it derived from exactly, it was used as a sort of shorthand to refer to students in schools or other people who were socially awkward and obnoxiously intelligent, mostly in the fields of math and science.

But the meaning quickly changed into a type of slur that could apply to someone even if they didn’t have the social characteristics of a nerd, but was, for example, super interested in books and learning.

For middle-school children, ultimately being dubbed a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ is still not always welcome. In fact, evidence indicates that such epithets lead children to underachieve purposely to avoid these labels, especially the case with girls.

As to why the stigma, the obvious explanation is that this is related to the teenage psychology of rebellion against authority figures, which include teachers and the school systems in general. Those good at the subjects taught and those who become the favorite of the teachers are therefore regarded as uncool, particularly if, to a wide range of students, a subject seems not very applicable in real life and therefore causes utter confusion and subsequent rejection in order to avoid feeling stupid.

Of course, the number of reasons why ‘nerds’ are sometimes unpopular is decidedly large and can be easily linked to things like anti-intellectualism, as well as simple stereotypical social awkwardness at times, but our interest here lies primarily in the evolution of the implied theme from king’s associated with Gods for their intellectual prowess, to the modern day stereotypical physically and socially fragile intellectuals.

On this note, the drastic stereotype is especially strange, since for most of history, the “bullies” – i.e. the various warlords in history – predominately loved to be or be thought of as what essentially boils down to… nerds.

If we look to history’s champion of the nerds, Plato, founder of the academy and promoter of philosophy, music and mathematics, we can read that he was an accomplished wrestler. Actually – and prepare for your mind to be blown – the name ‘Plato’ is just a nickname allegedly given by his wrestling coach, meaning ‘broad’ because of his stature, as commented by Diogenes Laertius.

One of his ideas – prolifically described in his work ‘The Republic’ – was that the perfect ruler should be a philosopher king. So, not surprisingly, the nerd wanted the world to be ruled by nerds! But this type of role model should be also strong and have a built body, since it was believed that the outer image reflects the mind controlling it. Plato’s teacher, the philosopher Socrates, is also portrayed as having shown great bravery and valour as a soldier in the battle of Potidaea in 432 BCE, balancing his spiritual greatness as a thinker. This mentality has survived in various axioms such as “a healthy mind in a healthy body”.

So it is not that surprising that in the movie ‘Man of Steel’, young Clark Kent reads “The Republic” while being bullied by kids from school.

Okay, but all that concerns people with a tendency towards knowledge. What about the bullies? How did they manifest in the old days, those warlords and rulers? And were they actually the same people we might classify as nerds? A strange concept, that of the nerdy bully, but nonetheless apt in this case.

Well, the tendency to show off and shout one’s prowess to everyone is probably as old as humanity. Today, this is done with instagram photos, then, with statues and spectacles. Within the literary civilizations, this would sometimes be transposed in an effort to show one’s intellectual prowess as well.

To see how this works, let’s look to the land of Sumer. The ruler would build large temples and the like, and of course would show himself doing so in carvings etc., so that his contemporaries and we in the future would admire him for designing and building such a magnificent structure. Even if the depiction is of course symbolic and he did not lift a finger himself. For example, here is an example from around 2500 BCE, where the king Urnanshe let himself be portrayed on the upper left corner, carrying a funny basket used by workers to transport bricks.

As the building procedure became more complex, the rulers funding the projects were more admired for it, but at the same time, all knew who was really deserving of that respect. And that was not so much the big guy with the money, but rather the architect. The guy doing all the math and planning. So much so that one sees some of these early Bronze Age engineers being deified, such as Imhotep – no, not the ‘Mummy’ guy – the architect of the Giza pyramid.

As another example, 300 years after Urnanshe, one of his successors, Gudea, shows himself participating in the building of the temple, but this time he is holding a plan, fancying himself an architect.

In the same vein, another well known ruler followed this path, and that was the Roman emperor Hadrian, personally overtaking the design of many works, such as the temple of Venus in Rome.

Furthermore, kings fancied themselves as king-priests. A priest had access to the divine powers and the respect and often fear of the people. Ancient kings would try and combine the positions of head of religion and head of state in the same person… themselves.

So for example in Egypt, the pharaoh was the consort of the gods, depicted in relevant size to them in wall carvings. In Rome, ever since Augustus the Roman emperors, besides being the head of state, would also serve as the ‘pontifex’, the head of the priesthood, something that the consuls, the heads of state in the Roman Republic, had not previously done.

Of course, for simple very direct practical reasons, gathering books and knowledge would help expand research in areas such as war technology or medicine. So naturally, the seeking of knowledge in itself became a prestigious affair. Knowledge, as ever, was power.

Remember Ashurbanipal from the intro, the king who prided himself on all the books he had gathered? He was not the only one. Ptolemey in Alexandria, Harun-al Rashid in Baghdad, the Medici in Florence – all kings and dukes who liked to appear refined and civil – would sponsor the gathering of books, not only supporting intellectuals, but also trying to be intellectuals, with some known epic fails, such as the Roman emperor Nero…

Moving on from then, since the clash between the bishop Ambrosius and the Emperor Theodosius in the late 400s AD and continuing to medieval times, the responsibility over divine things and also about keeping and expressing opinions about anything concerning knowledge was in the priests’ hands again, with books being copied and studied by monks etc.

The king would still seek the connection with the divine, but now, with exceptions, not usually as directly as in the past, where claiming descendancy from a god or being head of the priests himself was all the rage. In slightly more modern times, simply gaining the blessing of the pope or priests was sufficient. The ruler himself would instead tend to focus on building up the image of the capable warrior.

So the ideal of Plato (and Clark Kent) to combine wisdom and strength and appreciate both equally, was eventually left behind. Priests would prompt asceticism and focus on the divine. Caring for the appearance of the body was regarded as vanity and generally frowned upon in what we could call the academic world of the day, which was mainly priesthood. This type of the isolated academic, immersed the whole day in his books and never seeing sunshine and exercise, would continue and slowly start to fit the more nerdy stereotype we think of today- the sort of absent minded, socially awkward professor.

With the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the torch of knowledge was transferred to new bearers: the scientists, around which the stereotype of the isolated obsessive types àl Dr Frankenstein developed. Although appreciated as the force behind progress, and in cases such as Einstein even becoming celebrities, scientists were even regarded with some arrogance, as isolated from the rest of the working class as the type that “does not get their hands dirty”, or even is inept at more practical matters of life, whether that was actually true or not.

To the disappointment of ancient philosophers like Plato and Seneca, the search for knowledge was disconnected from the concept of striving to become a complete being and the effort to build oneself physically as well as intellectually. Rather, it became about entering the best, most prestigious university, studying for exams until the best grades were near inevitable, and publishing papers bi-annually. And let’s not forget the time constraints that come with this sort of pressure. With the competitive nature of this academic world, even since school, it therefore seems like the best idea for the so-inclined students to leave behind potentially rich social lives in hopes of accomplishment in academia… or so goes the stereotype…

This all has ultimately culminated in the idea of the book-worm, or nerd generally being skinny, physically weak, glasses wearing, and socially awkward. Among countless other reasons related to the ridiculous shenanigans that occur among school aged individuals, this has resulted in the label not always a sought after one, and often even more socially stigmatized among females. This also often sees girls unfortunately abandon the sciences and fields like engineering at an early age even if they have a particularly strong aptitude and interest in it. But that’s a major topic for another day.

All of this said- all is not lost for the one time rulers of Earth and now lowly bullied nerds the world over.

With the advent of, frankly, kick-ass advanced technologies and other such practical and extremely prevalent applications of engineering, math, and science literally staring us all in the face right now as you watch this- as well as the widespread popularity of comic book heroes, and sci-fi, and fantasy at an all-time high- being openly nerdy in the modern world is slowly starting to shift back from being a label one would want to avoid as much as possible in order to keep your lunch money, to something worn as a badge of pride.

That’s not even to mention the number of nerds who’ve retaken the mantle of Kings of the World via starting various tech and other companies. Sometimes within a few years vaulting themselves by their brains and ultra nerdy focus into being among the richest people in history. Much like their kingly forbears, superiority complex occasionally included.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

The first documented case of “geek” dates all the way back to 1916.  At the time, the term was used to describe sideshow freaks in circuses.  Specifically, it was typically attributed to those circus performers who were known for doing crazy things like biting the heads of various small live animals or eating live insects and the like.  These performances were often called “geek shows”.  The word itself, “geek”, came from the word “geck”, which was originally a Low German word which meant someone who is a “fool/freak/simpleton”.

Before “geek”, “nerd”, “dork”, etc, the proper terms for these same ragamuffins were “Dewdroppers”, “Waldos”, and “Slackers”.  Other common old slang words that were somewhat similar in meaning: pantywaist, oil can, drip, stinkeroo, mullet, roach, schnookle, kook, dimp, dorf, squid, auger, square, Joe Zilch, and dudd.

Expand for References




Chamberlin, J. (2010, February). Why did ‘nerd’ become a dirty word? Monitor on Psychology, 41(2). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/02/nerd



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One comment

  • One correction: Imhotep was actually the architect for Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The Great Pyramid at Giza was built by Djoser’s great-great-great-(great)-grandson Khufu (it’s a little unclear whether there should be 3 or 4 greats, it varies by the king’s list), so Imhotep was long ascended to godhood by then!