Where the Words “Geek” and “Nerd” Came From

geek girlToday I found out where the words “geek” and “nerd” came from.

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”.

The first documented case of “nerd” was in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo, in 1950.  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.  Specifically, they used it as being synonymous with someone who was a “drip” or a “square”.

There are two popular theories 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 theory 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.  The word nerd ended up becoming fairly popular in the 1960s and by the 1970s was hugely popularized by the TV show Happy Days, where it was used frequently.

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Bonus Facts:

  • 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.
  • A similar term to “geek”, in British slang, is “anorak”. This is typically used synonymously with “geek”, though it tends to imply an even greater level of awkward behavior patterns, more akin to someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome.
  • Another British slang term that is somewhat similar to geek/nerd/etc is “boffin”; this is someone who is incredibly smart.  Its closest American slang term equivalent is probably “egghead”.
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  • Any idea where the term boffin comes from? I use it all the time having spent many years working with folks from Commonwealth countries. I assumed it was from Lord of the Rings but you have piqued my curiosity.

  • Ozzie Osbourne is a geek? Who knew?

  • Also the word Dutch word “gek” looks a lot like geek, and means literally “crazy”. But can also be used to descibe a situation/thing as weird/bizar etc.
    I think thats even closer related then the German word geck.

  • Wow, nice pic with this article! I’ll have to meet up with a geek real soon.

  • Bill in Houston

    Nerd was popularized on the TV show Happy Days during the mid-1970s.

  • The English term anorak does not imply significantly more social awkwardness akin to Asperger’s. It simply implies somebody is a bit of a dork or nerd, probably enjoying train-spotting, which often requires an anorak, given the British climate!

  • Echo Ian’s post above – very strange interpretation of ‘anorak’!

  • Isn’t there a town in Minnesota called Brainerd that may have given the name in it’s true form as it denotes an intelligent person? And the word we know is a shortened version of that. Possible?

  • I read somewhere that the derogatory ANORAK term actually originated from the days when fans of the first “pirate” pop stations broadcasting from ships just outside the UK territorial waters used to visit in small boats, all wearing anoraks because of the British climate.
    Ah – Wikipedia to the rescue, as always..
    “In 1984 the Observer newspaper used the term as an alternative term for the prototype group interested in detailed trivia, the trainspotters,[1][2] as members of this group often wore, by then very unfashionable, anoraks, when standing for hours on station platforms or along railway tracks, noting down details of passing trains.

    The first use of the phrase to describe an obsessive fan has also been credited to the radio presenter Andy Archer, who used the term in the early 1970s for fans of offshore radio, who would charter boats to come out to sea to visit the radio ships.[3]”

    ^ Skues, Keith (2009). Pop Went the Pirates II. Horning: Lambs’ Meadow Publications. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-907398-05-9.

    Early 70’s precedes ’84 by quite a long time….

  • Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a cartoonist and undoubtedly knew the word “nerd” from that context, meaning a bit of dirt (like an eraser crumb) that mars a drawing and needs to be removed carefully to avoid smearing the paper.

    A nerdle is another similar word in some other fields meaning a small dollop of some semi-liquid substance like the toothpaste on a toothbrush, or grease in a bearing.

    I can’t find it now but both seemed to have been derived in one source I have seen from an older word meaning something inconsequential, like a dirt clod or a stain.

    By the way, you almost never hear someone call a woman or a girl a dork. There’s a reason for that. 🙂