/metəˌfôrˈt(y)o͞oitəs/ adj. the gleeful feeling that manifests in the curious communicator upon serendipitously stumbling upon a new word or phrase and learning its etymology, usage and derivative forms. Have you ever wondered why some words are pronounced the way they are or how they entered the English language? What religious, social, economic or other factors helped shape the development of our language? This blog tackles these -- and lighter -- subjects.
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?
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”.
in 1957, referred to an “unbelievable number of events almost impossible to
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?
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.”
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…
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.
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.