The Freaky origins of the words “geek”, “nerd” and “dork”

Today my Inquizitive Mind wondered how did the words”geek”, “nerd” and “dork” originated. These terms have been used as insults in the past but their definition has changed over the period with people sometimes referring themselves as a “geek” or a “nerd” and wear them with pride.

ORIGIN OF GEEK

The first known recorded instance of the use of “geek” dates back to 1916. At that time “geek” was used to describe the sideshow freaks in the circuses. It was specifically used to refer those circus performers who would perform freaky stunts and crazy things like eating live insects, biting animals and so on. Rather than being called “freak shows” the performances were called “geek shows”.

The word “geek” stems from a Low German word “geck” which means someone who is a “fool/freak/simpleton”.  The word had its revival with its use in 1941 book Nightmare Alley and its equally popular movie adaptation.

ORIGIN OF NERD

The first documented instance of the word “nerd” was in Dr. Seuss’s book “If I Ran the Zoo” in 1950. The text read as: “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too”. In the very next year, in 1951, a Newsweek magazine adopted the word in a similar sense as we use it today. Specifically, they used it as being synonymous with someone who was “drip” or “square”.

There are actually two popular theories of the origin of “nerd”.

Theory 1:

The word “nerd” was derived from “drunk” written backward as “knurd”. This was apt to describe the people who preferred studying instead of going out with friends and partying. This theory somehow makes sense but is not as popular as the other theory.

Theory 2:

This more popular theory suggests that “nerd” came up from the modification of “nut”, specifically “nert”, which meant “a stupid or a crazy person”. This word was extremely common in the 1940s before the word “nerd” showed up. The word “nerd” gained popularity in the 1960s and was further hyped by the idiot box in 1970s when it was used frequently on the show “Happy Days”.

ORIGIN OF DORK

Most midwest etymologists believe that dork is, in fact, an alteration of the word “dick” and originally meant penis. It was certainly used to mean penis during its first use. In the 1961 novel Valhalla, it was spelled as “dorque” meaning penis, however, a 1964 article in American Speech confirmed its phallic meaning and spelled the word as “dork”. It was also used by Charles Schmid, a serial killer known as “The Pied Piper of Tuscon,” who was interviewed in the Life magazine, in which he was quoted saying “I didn’t have any clothes and I had short hair and looked like a dork. Girls wouldn’t go out with me.” Schmid certainly meant “penis” when he said “dork,” but as the word spread, it caught with the teens and pop culture to mean people who look uncool and/or odd.

Some more trivia:

  • “Anorak” is a British slang similar to the term “geek”. This is used synonymously with “geek”, but it intends to imply an even extended level of awkward behavior pattern.
  • “Boffin” is another British slang somewhat similar to geek/nerd/dork etc. However, this is used to refer someone who is incredibly smart. The Amercian equivalent to it is “egghead”
  • Before “geek”, “nerd”, “dork” etc came up, these ragamuffins were portrayed by “Dewdroppers”, “Slackers” and “Waldos”. There was a whole list of slang words like a pantywaist, kook, dimp, dudd, dorf and much more.

Saksham Dewan

Saksham Dewan is a blogger from India, a quizzer, a chess player, and a finance enthusiast. He is a student at Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies majoring in Finance. He loves to write on topics he startled by, be it be anything. To fulfill his quizzing dreams he also runs a Business Quizzing Blog, bizquizwhiz.com not only to pursue his interests but also help others preparing for such quizzes.