1. [mainstream slang] Pejorative applied to anyone with an above-average IQ and few gifts at small talk and ordinary social rituals.
2. [jargon] Term of praise applied (in conscious ironic reference to sense 1) to someone who knows what’s really important and interesting and doesn’t care to be distracted by trivial chatter and silly status games. Compare geek.
The word itself appears to derive from the lines “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, / A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!” in the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo (1950)… How it developed its mainstream meaning is unclear, but sense 1 seems to have entered mass culture in the early 1970s (there are reports that in the mid-1960s it meant roughly “annoying misfit” without the connotation of intelligence.
When I was a kid, no one wanted to be a nerd. Nowadays, though, nerds are “out of the closet.” People (well, guys) are proud to be nerds. Is this just part of the nerd life cycle – unpopular at 10, proudly nerdy at 33? I very much doubt it. Nerds of my dad’s generation (like, say, my dad!) wanted to fit in with regular folks, not embrace their nerdity.
Why the change? Alex Tabarrok attributes it to the rising education premium. The ratio of nerd to non-nerd earnings has gone up, and the group’s status has risen along with it. This is probably part of the reason, but I primarily credit the Internet. Communication, not economic success, is the foundation of group identity. Lots of non-nerdy sub-cultures have profited from the free-fall in the cost of social interaction. But in contrast to most other sub-cultures, nerds are virtually 100% computer literate. The Internet has been the One Ring of nerddom.
In case you haven’t guessed, yes, I consider myself a nerd. I’m such a nerd that I worry that my sons will fail to embrace their nerd heritage. The best game show in history, Beat the Geeks, began by asking each contestant “What’s the geekiest thing about you?” I still wish I could have been a contestant just to give my response:
“I am the Dungeon Master for an all-economists’ Dungeons and Dragons game.”
Beat that, geeks!