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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an especially studious and often awkward person, particularly one skilled in a specific or highly technical field

dr seuss's illustration from if i ran the zoo showing a nerd

Originally published 3 May 2015

Not only is it World Book Day, but today Haggard Hawks was also singled out by the lovely people at @TechRepublic as one of the Top 10 geekiest Twitter accounts to follow, providing “a new burst of nerdery to your Twitter feed”. Truly, there is no higher honour. Especially seeing as we were listed alongside the likes of Wil Wheaton, the Mars Curiosity Rover, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the CIA. It’s like the guestlist of the strangest dinner party ever. I just hope they remember I don’t eat seafood.

But with both World Bookishness and word nerdery in mind, there was really only one thing to do—talk about Dr Seuss’s involvement in the history of the word nerd.

Nerd first appeared in print in Dr Seuss’s If I Ran The Zoo in 1950:

“It’s a pretty good zoo,”
Said young Gerald McGrew,
“And the fellow who runs it
Seems proud of it, too.”
“But if I ran the zoo,”
Said young Gerald McGrew,
“I’d make a few changes.
That’s just what I’d do…”

The poem continues—in anapaestic tetrameter, if you want to get really nerdy—listing all the fantastical creatures that “young Gerald McGrew” plans to capture and keep at his zoo. Sadly hawks don’t get a look in, but plenty of other creatures do, including “an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too.”

And there, alongside the word nerd, is a picture of a short, squat, grumpy-looking creature with a long face and straggly white hair—the original “nerd”.

And that would be that, if it weren’t for one thing: Dr Seuss’s nerd looks more cantankerous than it does—well, nerdy. And it’s this inconsistency that has stirred up considerable debate as to whether If I Ran The Zoo is the word’s genuine origin or not.

The poem certainly provides us with the earliest written evidence we know about, but in this case that might not be the end of the story. Instead, some etymologists have suggested that nerd might come from nertz, an old 1920s slang word for “nonsense” or “madness”. Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary claims it could be “a euphemistic alteration of turd” (although that takes us dangerously close to poppycock territory).

Or maybe it comes from Mortimer Snerd, a character created by the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in the 1940s? Or maybe it was originally knurd, a university back-slang reversal of “drunk”, implying someone who doesn’t partake in drinking and partying on college campuses? (In which case nerd would be a fine example of an ananym.)

But with no hard evidence as yet to support any of these suggestions, Dr Seuss rightly remains credited with inventing the nerd. It’s just a shame that the it-kutch never caught on as well...


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