Burrows (2005) and Nugent (2007) both cite Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo (1950) as the first documented used of the word “nerd.” Seuss’ nerd is not much of a character, but appears in a list of creatures the protagonist might include in the zoo were he in charge. The nerd, hailing from Ka-Troo, is pictured alongside the text as, in Burrows words, “a grumpy humanoid with unruly hair and sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt. A fitting image, these days, for a nerd.” Another origin myth cited (as highly speculative) by Burrows is that the term originated in 1940’s at the Northern Electric Research and Development Laboratories (now Nortel) in Ottawa. While the notion of lab jackets and pocket protectors with “NER&D” emblazened on them is priceless, as of yet none have been found.
Other folk etymologies include the spelling “knurd” as the reverse of “drunk,” birthed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the early 1960’s as a term of derision for those who chose to stay home and study rather than drink at campus parties (Burrows, 2005). Nugent furthers the RPI connection by citing a 1953 an on-going single panel comic drawn by a student named Norm Kurdell (Norm Kurdell?), appearing in the Bachelor, a campus humor journal. Kurdell “crystallized what was funny about a particular RPI type. The protaganist had glasses, boney arms, a flattop haircut, and a tie.” More than a decade later, a 1964 issue of the Bachelor ran a parody of West Side Story featuring a naïve freshman named “Nurdly,” corroborating the testimony of an RPI alumnus Nugent interviewed who noted that the term gained popular usage during that school year (p.59). Burrows shows a group photo published in a 1965 issue of the Bachelor with the caption “Why are 61 Nurds so excited?”
What I find most interesting about the RPI connection is the early hint of nerds tied to a self-effacing humor. The Bachelor, even evidenced by its title, was a paper put out by engineering students poking fun at the culture of engineering students. While it might just be an extension of a Groton-esque school dynamic in which the nerd was no more than the butt of other boys’ jokes, it seems to more likely suggest the early formation of a nerd consciousness. Burrows cites articles in Newsweek and college papers from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s clearly associating the term “nerd,” or “nurd” with “drip,” “square,” “fool,” or “dull and boring person” (2005). Each of these origin stories offers insight into how nerds have come to understand themselves, how a nerd identity has been institutionalized.
Though the word “nerd” was never used, the prototype as a Hollywood stock character is well established through the same era, particularly in the work of Jerry Lewis, and most notably in his portrayal of Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor, a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde framed in a nerd/hipster paradigm (Nugent, 2003, p.60). However, it was not until 1978 that the term “nerd” and the figure of the socially awkward, bespectacled, masters of arcane knowledge were brought together in mainstream media. Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts, writers for the fledgling sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live introduced “The Nerds,” in a series of sketches featuring Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as awkward teenagers who would come to epitomize the stereotype for decades. The use of “nerd” for the sketch was up for debate, as the Fonzie character had used it in Happy Days to refer to Lenny and Squiggy as loser greasers, but ultimately it stuck (p. 64-66).
It is interesting to note that this first large scale, mainstream articulation of nerdiness centrally featured an adolescent girl character. Certainly similarly depicted girls and women existed in English and American literature and functioned in their own right in preserving the gender order, but the term was and is still primarily employed in relation to boys and men. Further exploration of the function of nerd girls and women, and nerd masculinities read onto female bodies, in the popular imaginary is needed in the dissertation.
The boyness of nerds was further inscribed by the surprise success of the1984 release of Revenge of the Nerds. Returning to the campus dynamic in which “real men” were athletic leaders and the overly studious were subordinated and regulated by peer social structures, Revenge of the Nerds turned the tables as the nerds ultimately won out over the jocks. What does that revenge look like? Aside from domination an inter-fraternity competition and a feel-good acceptance from the larger school community, “revenge” seems to be mostly about getting the girl. The film flips the script on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as nerds become the new sexy. Nerds, emerging from their failure to accelerate at one generation’s version of hegemonic masculinity, burst into the digital age with all the patriarchy intact. The basic plotline of the nerd securing his place in masculine hegemony – despite advancing technologies that would seem to consolidate nerd power – only through partnering with a woman, sexy in ways that equally preserve patriarchal power, has been repeated for the last three decades from the John Hughes film Sixteen Candles (1984) to the current television show The Big Bang Theory (2007). The analysis of this plotline and its variations requires more attention in the final project.
“Nerds,” Nugent notes, “almost by definition, came to power in the end, because modernity was on their side, but that didn’t mean anybody had to like them. They could still be denied prestige and affection” (p.38). The revenge fantasy may mark the rising cultural significance of technological savvy, but the access to hegemonic masculinity remains a fantastic product of that hegemony itself. Mainstream, pop culture depictions of nerds often remains desexualized, in fact their comic value depends on it. This raises a question for further consideration is to what degree, with an institutionalized notion of “nerd” in place, can the “desexualized” nerd be queered to disrupt the currently accepted strategies of hegemonic masculinity? And more centrally, what can both the emergence and survival of the nerd as a pop culture phenomenon tell us about cultural anxieties regarding race, class, masculinity and national identity in a post-industrial, post-modern era?