Friday, January 8, 2010

When the Imagined Goes Mainstream, Or: How Awesome It is When a Word Somebody Totally Makes Up Ends Up Used By, Like, Everybody

January 9th is Word Nerd Day. And if you go and research it, you'll most likely find - as I did - that though lots of folks list it as a holiday on their blogs and what-have-you, there isn't one single site that explains its existence, or origin, or anything. It seems that somebody just up and submitted it to Chase's Calendar of Events, and the good people there decided it was a great addition to their list of festivities, and voila! a holiday is born.

Whether it has a long and storied history (uh-uh) or a rather unspectacular back story (yup) makes no nevermind to me. What Word Nerd Day does do, is give me the excuse to talk about words. Not that I need one. But having a questionably valid excuse to do so is better than having no excuse at all.

So, where did this word, "nerd" come from? The earliest documented appearance of "nerd" in print came from none other than that most venerable Sage of Silliness: Dr. Seuss. I'll prove it. Go and dig out your beloved-and-quite-possibly-well-worn-copy of his 1950 book, If I Ran the Zoo. Flip to page 47, and you will see these words:

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!

You'll also see this:

But there isn't any other lexical explanation. The Sage of Silliness leaves the reader to his or her own devices there. It seems that, in the book, it was more of a name for a particular species of animal-person-thing, akin to "bear," or "alligator," rather than a description of a certain type of individual.

Then, the October 8, 1951 issue of Newsweek (page 28) wrote of its popular use as a synonym for "a drip" or "a square" in Detroit, Michigan. By the early 1960's, "nerd" was in common use nationwide in the United States, and had even hopped the pond to Scotland, where the Glasgow, Scotland Sunday Mail included the word in its regular column "ABC for Squares," defining "nerd" as "a square -- any explanation needed?"

Now, let's jump ahead to today, where - while "nerd" still clings to its initial geeky meaning - it has also morphed into somewhat of a badge of honor; one who is accomplished in and/or obsessed by whatever field the word is attached to, such as: computer nerd, science nerd, gamer nerd, art nerd, comic book nerd, music nerd, or my personal favorite...word nerd.

Blogger and novelist Wolf Gnards offers his definition of "word nerd" on his writing blog:
A Word Nerd is anyone who loves the written language and isn't afraid to admit it: be it literary classics or this month's Spider-Man comic.

Which brings us back to Word Nerd Day. And so, to celebrate those folks who love all things wordy or literary or bookish in any way, here are a few Websites You May Want to Wander To:

  • Word Nerd - Bethany Warner's blog, whose slogan is: "No pocket protectors here; just don't break the spines on books." She she blogs about books and writing and such, and refers to herself in her postings as "Word Nerd."
  • The Word Nerds - A site dedicated to "words, language, and why we say the things we do." Though the site ceased publishing weekly podcasts in April 2009, it still has an active forum that keeps the wordy ways and discussions alive.
  • Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing - Mignon Fogarty is your host for this most useful website. If you have any questions about using the English language in any way, chances are you can find the answers you need right there, or in her book. And, Grammar Girl is on Twitter.
  • Martha Brockenbrough - Author of books for kids and adults alike, she is a humor columnist, blogger, and one who can find the "funny" in the often staid world of grammar. You can find Martha on Twitter, as well.
  • - An online dictionary - launched in June 2009 - that is anything but ordinary. It is a database of (at last count) over 4 billion words gathered from such varied sources as multiple dictionaries, websites, books, magazines and newspapers. CEO Erin McKean points out that this site will give you not only definitions in text, but also relevant Flickr images, Twitter search matches, and user-contributed tags and comments. The site invites users to submit words, too. And, wordnik Tweets with the best of them.

Happy, happy Word Nerd Day, fellow word-lovers! May your day be deliciously lexical!



  1. Wow, Kim, that's a treasure trove of word knowledge. You've done your research, lady!

    Thanks for all the fun links.

  2. Your blog is always so full of interesting and useful information. I've missed reading it , but I'm back now and intend to stick around.

  3. Ava, my friend, it has been too long! Glad to see you're back.

  4. Interesting...who knew nerd was really a bear thingy?!

    PS. Love your blog so I am featuring it today on my online radio show 12pm EST

  5. Hey, cool that we are on the radio today!

    Also, my stupid bloglines hadn't updated your feed, so I missed some. Pfffft!

  6. Jen: Great show! Thanks for letting me know about it. Can't wait to check out the other blogs you featured, like that Bozos blog, which is totally fabulous. ;-)

    Speaking of I Think We're All Bozos...

    Kathi: Wasn't it, though? Sorry bloglines wasn't playing nice. But, playing catch-up is sometimes more fun, anyway.

  7. too funny, we just bought this book the other day too! My kids thought it was hilarious!

    Thanks for the visit to my blog today! :)

  8. i would have NEVER guessed Nerd originated from Suess!

    Great post!:)

  9. Hi Kim, Loved reading your Word Nerd Day blog. If you have time, please check out my own Word Nerds blog -


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