Geek or Nerd: Which Came First?

Which came first, the geek or the nerd? This question sounds a bit like a panel discussion you might encounter at one of the many comic-cons which take place across the country. But unlike many of the fiercely partisan arguments you will find geeks and nerds having, this one has an almost simple answer: geeks have been with us longer than nerds.

The nerd (by which I mean the word, and not the class of individual) is a recent creation, although there is a lack of clarity about when exactly it first appears. Some people feel that it dates from 1950, when it was used by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) in If I Ran the Zoo: “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!” Claiming this as the first use of nerd seems problematic, since we typically don’t say that Seuss was the inventor of preep, proo, or most of the other imaginary words that he uses so freely (such as humpf-humpf-a-dumpfer or jibboo).

Regardless of whether we accept Seuss as the inventor of this word or not, it does not much change the time at which it began to be used in English; nerd can be found in a 1951 Newsweek article, in which it designates the socially maladjusted person we all know and love today. What about the geek?

Geek is clearly the older of the two words, but it is likewise a word with some uncertainty surrounding it. No one is entirely certain where is comes from, but there is speculation that it is descended from the earlier word geck (which is a simple person, or a fool). Geck has been used in English since the 16th century, and occasionally was spelled in a manner similar to geek; in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Sicillius Leonatus says “And to become the geeke and scorne o’th’others vilany.”

Geek began to be used in the 19th century as a word to describe, well, a geck. By the beginning of the 20th century it had taken on one of its more well-known and notorious meanings: a circus performer who specialized in biting the heads off of live animals, such as chickens and snakes. It is not until the middle of the 20th century that we see geek taking on the meaning of nerd. The earliest recorded evidence found in the Oxford English Dictionary for this sense of geek comes in 1957, slightly later than nerd.

So geek is an older word than nerd, but both sides have grounds on which to claim a greater lineage. Nerds can say “we were uncool before it was cool,” and geeks can say “we were biting the heads off chickens before you even existed.”