"nerd" etymythology

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Jul 17 03:54:19 UTC 2011

The English actor and comedian Simon Pegg has a new book out called _Nerd Do
Well_, and in interviews he explains the title as a play on what he claims
is the etymology of "nerd", from "ne'er-do-well".

[starting around 2:40]
It ["nerd"] does come from the phrase "ne'er do well". I mean, that's where
the word is derived from. It was a shortening of that, which then became
"nehrd" [nE:d] and then "nerd" [n@:d], and then... you know, meaning someone
on the fringes of society.
Why call your book Nerd Do Well?
That’s where the word ‘Nerd’ comes from. The word Nerd is a shortening of
Ne’er Do Well.

I've heard many proposed etymologies for "nerd" ("knurd" as a reversal of
"drunk", "nurd" as a rhyming alteration of "turd", etc.), but this was a new
one on me. I see on Google Books that it appeared in a May 26, 1987 _PC
Magazine_ column by John C. Dvorak ("Origins of the Word 'Nerd'"). Dvorak
dismissed the theory, along with many others, in favor of an origin from Dr.
Seuss's _If I Ran the Zoo_. And John A. Barry seems to suggest that the
etymythology was his own in the 1991 book _Technobabble_:



Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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