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When did the word ‘nerd’ evolve to mean cool? It’s a puzzle

Howard Richler's latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit

Being an avid fan of some of the challenging crossword puzzles in The New York Times, I occasionally even delve into the puzzle archives and attempt some of the ones from yesteryear.

Recently, I was working on a puzzle from Sept. 15, 1995, in which one of the clues was "teen outcast," with its answer as "nerd."

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I sent an e-mail to New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz mentioning that this definition highlights how the meaning of nerd has ameliorated in the intervening 22 years.

Mr. Shortz agreed with my assessment and was kind enough to send me a list of the 127 occasions nerd has been featured in the puzzles since Dec. 6, 1993, along with the clues that accompanied the word.

In 1994, for example, two of the clues for nerd were: "Hardly Mr. Cool" and "Common butt of jokes." Nineteen ninety-five featured these two nerd clues: "One who is socially challenged" and "dork."

Contrast this with the manner the word has been defined in more recent times: In 2013, "Brainy person and proud of it," in 2015, "Almost any character on The Big Bang Theory," and in 2017, "Brainiac stereotypically" and "Homework lover."

Dictionaries also reflect the change in the meaning of the word nerd.

The Encarta World English Dictionary's first definition says "Offensive term that insults someone's social skills," while its second definition has "single-minded enthusiast." The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines nerd as "A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious."

It now also has "a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication."

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It's debatable, however, if the OED's recent definition using adjectives such as "unfashionable" and "obsessive" reflects the way many people employ the word nerd nowadays.

Increasingly, the term evokes luminaries, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg; their imagination and grasp of innovative technology has transformed the world.

So why has the sense of nerd become more positive in the past two decades?

The aforementioned celebrities are proof that many people labelled nerds as adolescents went on to become very wealthy and imparted a higher status to the word. After all, being a billionaire is seen as cool in society notwithstanding that the billionaire at one time may have been given the nerd label.

Perhaps the etymology of the word nerd is in order here. The term appears to have been derived from a fictional animal found in Theodor Geisel's (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) story If I Ran the Zoo, written in 1950.

This creature was depicted as a small, unkempt humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.

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The following year, Newsweek magazine stated, "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd."

The term, however, did not become popular until the late 1960s, when it became a shibboleth among college students and surfers to mark those considered "uncool."

Personally, I don't mind being called a nerd (or a geek). In fact, both a language column I write and my blog are called WordNerd.

Just don't call me a dweeb, doofus or dork.

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