History of English-Language Insults V
Bill Long 12/1/06
The "Contemporary" Period (1955-80) II
Let's contine where we left off and introduce the contemporary period by talking about two less abusive terms: Daddy-o and nerd. You may wonder why I characterize "nerd" as a less abusive term, but read on. First, Daddy-o. Just as square early found its "home" among Black musicians, so Daddy-o also originated with there. From 1949 we have: "Daddy-o, friend, buddy. Originated with Negro musicans." By 1952 Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, could write: "A group of zoot-suiters greeted me in passing, 'Hey, now, daddy-o,' they called."
I would like to make one comment that I hope doesn't relate much to today, but is a response to racist comments I remember hearing quite a bit in the 1970s and even 1980s (maybe racists are still saying this today?). The racist comment was sort of a challenge. It was: "Can you name anything, really anything, that Blacks have contributed to history or to American life?" Now that I have lived a few years longer than I had in the early 1970s, I would say, resoundingly, "Yes I can!" Not only have African-Americans been instrumental in pushing Americans to understand our own Constitution (what does "equal protection of the laws" mean, anyway?), they have been utterly significant in musical history, athletics, entertainment, and as we see right here, language. I am convinced that what begins with African-Americans in New York or Los Angeles or elsewhere will end up in predominantly White corporate boardrooms within a decade (high fives? jumping up and hitting butts?). In fact, I would say that African-Americans have contributed more to the "spirit" or "soul" of the culture than any other group, including us Caucasians, who outnumber them eight to one.
Let's leave this word by quoting (and singing in our mind), Nik Cohn's 1969 tune which had the following words: "Who calls the English teacher daddy-o? Charlie Brown..."
Moving On To Nerd
If you just read the OED, you might think that nerd originated in Detroit in 1951. Its first attestation of the term comes from a Newsweek article of that year: "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd." Ah, I never dealt with "drip," did I? A "drip" as a stupid, feeble or dull person comes from the earlier period of insult-formation (1900-1935). It was first attested in 1932: "He's no drip..Ted's a darn good egg." Oops, you see how this project could go on almost interminably. I will put my foot down firmly on egg, smashing it as I go to be sure, and return to nerd.
Well, where do we go to find the first use of nerd? No other place than Dr. Seuss. As this most informative web site tells us, the first documented use of the word is in the 1950 story If I Ran the Zoo. In this story a boy named Gerald McGrew tells what he would do if he ran the zoo. One thing he would do is to bring back something called "a Nerd" from the land of Ka-Troo. As the web site describes it: "The accompanying illustration showed a grumpy humanoid with unruly hair and sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt." The specific words are:
"And then, just to show them, I'll say to Ka-Too
and a PROO
and a SEERSUCKER, too!"
There you have it! Isn't that fascinating? What is even more interesting to me is why the words "preep" and "proo," for example, never caught on while "nerd" did so with lightning quickness.
An Explanation of Nerd's Origin
But here is where we have a little problem with the Nerd. In 1950 he is spoken of by Dr. Seuss as a sort of wild-looking, but typical, Seuss character. Within one year, however, we have attestations of "Nerd" as a "square" in Detroit. What is the connection? One theory, mentioned by Jim Burrows in his afore-cited web site, is the following. He says that one of his correspondents related it to the company Northern Electric Research & Development (can you see it coming?). Apparently NE's first R & D lab was founded in 1937. Then, the plastic pocket protector was invented in 1947. Here is the hypothesis: "Now I 'know' that somewhere out there is a picture of one of those Northern Electric R & D boys wearing the white shirt, sleeves rolled up, black thick framed glasses and a pocket protector with "N.E.R.D Labs" printed right on it.."
This would make sense, I think, though it does need more firm atttestation to be demonstrated. In any case, it helps to explain not only why nerd could take on the connotation of a "square" (itself a rather new word, as we have seen) but why the word "nerd" would have been picked up at all. With the combined cultural force of Northern Electric and Dr. Seuss, we almost have a tsunami (ok, a little wave?) of cultural influence flowing our way.
Nerd then evolved from someone who was "square," i.e., that wasn't "with it" on the music, to someone who was out-of-it with respect to life in general. In 1971 the Observer could write: "Nerds are people who don't live meaningful lives." It then became associated primarily with scientists and technical types, perhaps because of the pocket-protector phenomenon. And, until the Revenge of the Nerds (1984 movie), where the nerd got the girl, and the labelling of wealthy Silicon Valley engineers as nerds in the 1980s and 1990s, no one wanted to be one. But now there is a revival of nerd-dom.
Let's now turn to one essay on insult development of specific words.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long