"nerd" etymythology

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jul 17 13:36:36 UTC 2011

On Jul 16, 2011, at 11:54 PM, Ben Zimmer wrote:

> 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".
> ---
> http://www.maximumfun.org/sound-young-america/simon-pegg-actor-and-filmmaker-interview-sound-young-america
> [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.
> ---
> http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/the-geek-will-out
> 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_:
> http://books.google.com/books?id=ShGYef744mgC&pg=PA151
> —bgz
The Dr. Seuss origin seems plausible.  As for John Barry, my faith in his etymological prowess is somewhat compromised by his tentatively advanced support for a source invoking the French word “noeud” (because it’s used for 'a diskless node’ that occupies 'a subservient position on the net’, as well as meaning ‘glitch’ or ‘snag’).  The problem is with his phonology, in particular the claim that the French word ‘is pronounced approximately like a New Englander’s pronunciation of “nerd”’, which he renders as “nuud”.  I assume this is at best [noed] where oe is (approximately) a mid-front rounded vowel.  Let’s give him the vowel—the problem is that there’s no [d] in the French pronunciation of “noeud”, and [nø:], as a French phonetician would render it (that’s supposed to be a long o with a diagonal line through it, a lower-case empty set symbol), sounds nothing like any (New) Englander’s rendering of “nerd”, rhotic or non.


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