The history of a word is often convoluted, but not the history of the word nerd.
The word nerd was first coined by Dr. Seuss. Claims that it was used earlier are hard to substantiate. Unlike the simple history of the word nerd, the history of Nerds candy is more complicated.
Let’s explore both who invented the word nerd and the invention of Nerds.
The Origins of the Word Nerd
In his 1950 children’s book “If I Ran the Zoo,” Dr. Seuss first used the word when the narrator, Gerald McGrew, is putting together a zoo and wants to add a Nerd (and also a Nerkle, Proo, and a Seersucker).
But this being the internet, a number of claims have been made that Seuss was not the inventor. Other claims include these:
- The original spelling was “knurd,” the reverse of drunk. Oh, to think that Dr. Seuss had snuck the idea of drinking into a children’s book. But there is no documented proof for this theory.
- Ignatz in a Krazy Kat comic might have used the word. However, “zero” hour makes more sense.
- There is some speculation that the word “nerdy” was used in the movie This is the Army. Although the Irving Berlin lyrics published on lyricsmania show the word “nerdy,” I cannot hear those lyrics sung on the YouTube version of the song “Ladies of the Chorus.“
“Oh, now we’re in the chorus
Dressed up in girdles that squeeze
We’re here to romance with
To sing and to dance with
A bunch of nerdy guys like these”
So the claim that Dr. Seuss was the individual who invented the word nerd has a lot of merit. Nerd, by the way, was not Seuss’s only invention.
- Lerkim was the name of the shack where the Once-ler lived. A full-sized replica exists in Alaska.
- Gluppity-Glup could be the sound of your bathtub as it slurps up the last bit of water, but in The Lorax it referred to the pollutants that ruined the town’s ponds.
- Zong was coined in the book Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! A Zong is a four-legged animal with a long snout and an incredibly long tail. Be careful—the Zong might zonk you with its tail.
How Nerd Morphed.
Nerd spread quickly. In 1951, it appeared in a Newsweek article, which suggested it was a replacement for a person who was called a “drip” or “square.” The next year, it appeared in Collier’s magazine as “Don’t be a party pooper or a nerd.”
A 1955 LA Times cartoon used the term this way:
“Some other time, nerd bird. We can’t dig that high-type gas you’re handing us.”
By 1957 it had made it to Scotland, where it was used as a clue in the Sunday Mail:
“a square, any explanation needed?”
These examples suggest that nerd was originally thought of as a rule-following, unoriginal, boring person. Now Merriam-Webster defines a nerd as
“a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests.”
“an unstylish or socially awkward person.”
Which one is it? Make up your mind, Webster!
So, What Exactly is a Grammar Nerd?
A grammar nerd does not live in a zoo. But a grammar nerd doesn’t take grammar too seriously. Sure, they have pet grammar peeves. However, a grammar nerd doesn’t believe grammar rules are set in stone.
A grammar nerd is not a prescriptivist. Instead, the nerd believes that language reflects and changes in response to its users. That doesn’t mean anything goes (as someone commented on a Quora post about grammar descriptivists). For starters, no single user can determine how language changes. And the change in language is gradual.
A grammar nerd enjoys watching the changes in language conventions, but a prescriptivist is annoyed that the changes have to be recorded. Grammar changes mean revisions in grammar handbooks.
What Does Nerds’ Candy Have to Do With Nerds?
The story of Nerds Candy is a bit more confusing than the coining of the word nerd. For starters, Angelo Fraggos is often credited as the creator of Nerds. However, further research suggests that may not be entirely true. According to Alamy, Fraggos launched the candy in his capacity as brand manager.
“Nerds were first launched in 1983 by Angelo Fraggos, who was the brand manager, eventually becoming vice president of marketing and technical services until he left in 1992. Robert Schuppan led his team in the creation and commercialization of Nerds.”
A deeper dive reveals that Sunmark Corporation, which also invented Pixy Stix, SweeTart, and Fun Dip, introduced Nerds in 1983. Confused yet?
To add to the confusion, some claim Nerds were invented by David and Judy Klein. According to these sources, the couple wanted to create a candy version of Nerds, a popular cereal at the time. That makes more sense than the idea that someone decided randomly to name the candy after a character in a Dr. Seuss book.
Anyway, the first distributor of the candy was the Willy Wonka Candy Factory. The Willy Wonka Candy Factory wasn’t a real factory but a marketing strategy created to capitalize on the release of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Sunmark was just the manufacturer.
Nestle purchased the Willy Wonka candy line in 1988. In 2018, Nestle sold their confectionary products to the Ferrara Candy Company, a subsidiary of an Italian chocolate and candy producer, Ferroro SpA, manufacturer of Nutella.
I started this post with the idea of answering the question “who invented the word nerd?” and found the answer straightforward. Clearly the history of the candy is more complicated. So does that make me a nerd for doing the research? Nerd out in the comments.
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