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What is a Nerd?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 23, 2024

Nerd is a term that may be used with pride, or one that may be used in a derogatory sense. A nerd is typically a person of any race who has strong aptitude in the sciences, math, and particularly computer science, and who may also be viewed as out of step with popular culture in matters of dress, or who is socially awkward. The designation of nerd may simply be applied to a person whose uniqueness sets them apart from what is considered the "norm," for no particular reason at all. The term is first mentioned in the Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, which was published in 1950.

From the 1950s onward, use of the term nerd increased, though drip, square, and egghead may have been more popular as synonyms to describe nerds. It’s not clear how much the television series Happy Days contributed to overall culture in the US and elsewhere, but it did bring the term into tremendous usage by the average person, since it was used so often in the series. Since Happy Days, most people understand the term nerd as that described in the previous paragraph.

Sometimes people seek to modify the name, and add other descriptions to nerds. For instance science nerds are people most skilled at science, while music nerds may be those people in high school and junior high or middle school who devote most of their free time to music. Both types of nerds tend to express high math skills; there is a strong connection between musical ability and mathematical prowess.

As first used in Happy Days the term was anything but flattering. It emphasized the social awkwardness of people and made some suggestion that interest in science or math was something to be ashamed of. Some famous former nerds have certainly proved the lie of this assumption. Bill Gates, now one of the richest men on the planet, used his science nerd skills to great effect, and perception about being interested and innovative in the sciences now may be viewed with positivism rather than with censure. Many nerds and non-nerds alike aspire to the Bill Gates path.

There are also some interesting studies connecting high functioning Asperger’s, Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and high functioning autism to nerdism. By nature, people with these conditions tend to have extreme trouble in social situations, and may misunderstand others’ language, range of expression and things like sarcasm, facial expression and vocal inflection. Yet, such folks also tend to be extremely adept in the sciences. This suggests that discrimination focused on nerds may truly be discrimination against several recognized learning disabilities and gives people pause as to whether using the term in a derogatory fashion is by nature extremely insulting.

On the other hand, there are now many kids who think being a nerd is something to aspire to. For a while, fashion embraced “nerd chic.” Some teachers and educators wish they could do more to inspire students to become nerds, but if true nerdiness is predicated on learning disability, this may not be possible. There is, however, growing respect for this skilled and invaluable member of society, reflected in things like Spain’s Nerd Pride Day, which has been celebrated since 2006.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By malik23 — On Nov 16, 2011

Somebody was going to create some word that belittled people. It is a good thing that this term is now assuming a positive meaning.

By anon162611 — On Mar 24, 2011

My mate is an all right guy, but when it comes down to it in my opinion he is a full on nerd! I mean he's 15 years of age, never goes out (unless prompted) and has an unhealthy obsession with anything regarding the gaming world. He also loves DrgonBallZ, which for his age I find very strange, but I guess it's his choice.

By rosoph — On Feb 13, 2011

I definitely think that being termed a nerd has gone from being a negative thing, to a positive one that people take pride in. And I think it's great that people have gotten to a point where they can be happy about being smart.

I've always thought it was horrible that people were made fun of because of their high intellect. Why would we make that into a negative thing? Who would want to strive to be dumb?

In my opinion, there is sometimes a bit of eccentricity that goes along with being a nerd, but maybe that's a good thing. People should be able to be themselves without ridicule.

By reader888 — On Feb 11, 2011

I wasn't aware that the word nerd became so popular by it's use on "Happy Days". Being from a different generation, when I think of TV being related to nerds, the show "Family Matters" comes to my mind. I would think that the character of Steve Urkel on that show, was probably one of the most famous television nerds ever.

I've even known of people dressing in nerd costumes for Halloween to look like Steve Urkel.

By jlmk — On Feb 10, 2011

Although some people who are considered nerds may have a form of a learning disability, I don't think that all nerds do. That would be to say that someone like Bill Gates actually has a learning disability. I've never heard that he does.

I also think that the word nerd is now used to describe people who are very adept in the sciences, mathematics or technology, but are not necessarily socially inept. I've seen a lot people who consider themselves to be nerds, and quite proudly, that handle social situations very well.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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