Nerds, alpha and otherwise

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By lexicographical synchronicity, the latest Widgetitis illustrates the developing distinction between alpha and beta nerds, while Ben Zimmer discusses the history of the word and the concept ("Birth of the nerd: The mysterious origins of a familiar character", Boston Globe 8/28/2011.)

Ben pegs the earliest known use in print to

an Oct. 8, 1951, Newsweek article rounding up teenager talk from around the country. “In Detroit,” according to the article, “someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.”

But the etymology remains obscure — read the article for a survey of the candidates. Ben closes by quoting Arnold Zwicky:

Perhaps all of this etymologizing is beside the point. Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at Stanford University, says that whimsical words like nerd “don’t necessarily have a historical source of the ordinary sort,” but instead may be inventions drawing on “distant echoes of an assortment of existing words."

T. Campbell, the author of Widgetitis, presupposes that the combination of beta with nerd will be obvious to his readers, adding the comment:

By most accounts, the Motorola-Google merger isn’t exactly one that puts employees of both companies on an equal footing. I wish I could believe that alpha nerds are beyond such things as cliquishness, but I’m afraid I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary.

I think this presupposition was correct, though the ever-unreliable Urban Dictionary includes (among others) the following two glosses for alpha nerd:

[T]he Alpha Nerd is, as in software development, the lowest of the nerd hierarchy. [...] The Omega Nerd is the highest of the nerd hierarchy.

The highest ranking member in a Nerd Herd. Usually the most intellectual, intelligent, awesome, and most far out nerd in the group.

As for the history of the term, the earliest use known to Google Books seems to be in Douglas Rushkoff's 2001 novel Exit Strategy:

After one of his infamous stay-awak-for-a-whole-month-on-other-kids'-Ritalin binges, Jude emerged having successfully hacked a feature in Microsoft Office that was originally intended to allow the company to conduct market research on consumers through the Internet. Then, he and Reuben — our alpha-nerd — exploited this security breach to create a tiny e-mail virus that could alter the functioning of Office in any way we wanted.

The term occurs several times in Mark Leibovitz's The New Imperialists, 2002:

LexisNexis find an example from the Montreal Gazette, 4/20/1999:

Allen's warning was based on the punishingly high level of taxation in Canada, which makes it hard to hire or to hold on to top talent. That's particularly true in a field like high-tech, where competition across North America for the best people is so fierce that it sometimes seems that alpha nerds change jobs the way other workers change their shirts.

And a possible 11/4/1997 example from Melbourne's The Age:

Isn't it fantastic (and rare) when a bit of techno jargon actually makes sense? In Net-speak, the word "thread" usually refers to a "topic thread", hyperlinks that connect a continuous series of USENET postings. As in real-life speech, following a thread on the Net means to read a series of USENET postings that share a subject or are connected by reference headers. Threads can be handy and fun; when a search hits a segment of an on-line conversation, Web prowlers can follow the hyperlink threads back to its beginning or forward to its present state. They can also be stunningly dull, as many such conversations are carried out among high-alpha nerds whose idea of a good time is debating the lifespan of charges in floating transistor gates.

(I'm not sure what "high-alpha" means here, so perhaps this is not actually relevant…)

All this suggests that the term came into use during the peak of the Great Dot-com Bubble. But it wouldn't be a shock to lean that someone used it between 1951 and 1999,  since it's a perfectly compositional combination of nerd with the sense of alpha glossed by the OED as

The dominant animal, esp. within a single-sex group. In extended use (sometimes with humorous or depreciative connotations): a person tending to assume a dominant role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership. Freq. attrib.

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23 Comments »

  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    I imagine a security preach is just preaching to the choir. Spiritual security blanket …

    [(myl) My typographical error, in fact, Much more prosaic.]

  2. Adam said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    I've seen the term 'High-alpha' used among brewers to talk about varieties of hops that are high in alpha acids. Maybe the Melbourne writer was a brewer?

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    The meaning of high-alpha seems clear enough. A little Google searching suggests a number of contexts from which it may have been co-opted. The application of fluid dynamics to fighter jets being one of the more interesting . . .

    As to alpha nerd itself. I don't have time to look this up, but is my memory correct that "alpha male" applied to things like office politics went viral in the 1980s or so? If the dates work out, that seems like a likely immediate source.

  4. maidhc said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    People talk about the "High Middle Ages" and the "High Renaissance", but I've always been puzzled about exactly how to measure the height of the Renaissanceness of any particular year. I note that the American Heritage Dictionary says that "high antiquity" refers to antiquity that is very distant from us.

    But maybe "high" is used to mean something like "quintessential", and this could be another example.

  5. Jim Ancona said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    Here's a Usenet example from 1995, although it's not clear whether the sense of "alpha" really fits the paradigm: http://groups.google.com/group/k12.chat.junior/msg/caa81c1bf0f54a6a?dmode=source

    This one from 1996 definitely seems to qualify, especially since he's using it in his .sig:
    http://groups.google.com/group/alt.cable-tv.re-regulate/msg/5ae00fe674687e2b?dmode=source

  6. Rubrick said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    Knowing Google, that nerd will probably be beta for years.

  7. Ethan said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    In the nerdly pecking order, would an alpha nerd fall above or below an uber geek?
    The latter returns about twice the GHit rate of the former, allowing for the alternative spellings "ubergeek", "uber-geek", "uber geek". Apparently you can even be a "[super] alpha uber-geek", although perhaps only if you're a GeekMan action figure (available in toy stores since 2004).

  8. Randy Hudson said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    In my neck of the software world, the usual term is "alpha geek" — I'm not aware of seeing "alpha nerd" before this post.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    I liked the mouseover on the second panel.

    I thought there might a retronym for "non-fantasy football", but the Wikipedia article just uses "NFL", and a Web search didn't turn anything up.

  10. Dunx said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

    What Randy Hudson said.

    I saw the term alpha geek bandied about a lot on the O'Reilly Media sites in the early 00s.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    Any chance that this use of "alpha" has its origins in Huxley's Brave New World?

  12. Henning Makholm said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    Shouldn't a "beta nerd" be number two in the pecking order, second only to alpha?

  13. Xmun said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 12:39 am

    @maidhc
    I've always assumed that the "high" in "High Renaissance" is the same as that in "high summer", i.e. it denotes that time when summer (or the Renaissance) is (or was) in full swing. Both being comparable to a full-blown but not yet withering flower. The term "high" here has nothing to do with height in the sense of elevation.

  14. Peter said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    @Ethan: as I understand them, “uber geek” is quite different from “alpha nerd”. “Alpha nerd” is a social classification: she belongs to a herd of nerds, and is socially dominant therein. “Uber geek” is a description of character: she is geeky, very much so.

    Like Spell Me Jeff, I’d always understood this sort of use of alpha as essentially a back-formation (in how most people understand it) from the pop psychology usage of alpha male. I can’t think of a way to test this with data, though.

  15. Steve the Steam Shovel said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    Like others above, I've heard and used "alpha geek" so often I thought it completely unremarkable. But "high-alpha" makes no sense at all; for surely the alpha in question is the ethological one:

    "In social animals, the alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank." — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_(ethology)

  16. Martin B said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    As Ben Zimmer discusses, the word "nerd" appears in If I Ran the Zoo by Dr Seuss, first published in 1950.

    "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!"

    Zimmer claims that the Newsweek article is the first evidence of its use as teen slang, not its first appearance in print.

    [(myl) As Ben also points out, there's little or no reason to believe that Dr. Seuss's "nerd" is the same word, as opposed to the same string of letters, as the term under discussion. The letter-string "nerd" occurs many times in print before 1951, for instance in this passage from John Hutton Balfour, Plants of the Bible 1866:

    Needless to say, this is not the earliest example of the letter-string. For example, an 1801 review in The Gentleman's Magazine of the poem "The Sorrows of Switzerland":

    And in 1799's Epitome of the ancient history of Persia, by Aḣmad ibn Muḣammad ibn ʻAbd al-Ghaffär, we find

    Ah, but you say, those are diferent words. Exactly. ]

  17. mollymooly said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    The semantic territories occupied by "nerd" and "geek" seem to have shifted; the reclaimers of the internet age seem to have prestigified "geek" more than "nerd". I recall first encountering "geek" when Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news, and described by an acquaintance as a geek, glossed as having the social skills of a nerd but without the intelligence.

  18. ENKI-][ said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    ESR, if I recall, tries to trace back 'nerd' in its current usage to Doctor Seuss, of all people.

    The word itself appears to derive from the lines “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!” in the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo (1950). (The spellings ‘nurd’ and ‘gnurd’ also used to be current at MIT, where ‘nurd’ is reported from as far back as 1957; however, knurd appears to have a separate etymology.) How it developed its mainstream meaning is unclear, but sense 1 seems to have entered mass culture in the early 1970s (there are reports that in the mid-1960s it meant roughly “annoying misfit” without the connotation of intelligence.

    Source: http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/N/nerd.html

    ESR is not a trained linguist, but as you can see from the Jargon File, he makes a lot of effort.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    @Henning Makholm: Precisely.

    "What happened to you?"

    "I got in a fight. I guess I came in second."

  20. Martin B said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:39 pm

    Actually I've been wondering if the etymology ran the other way: if it is possible that Seuss/Geisel heard the term in use and captured it for his own nonsense ends, managing to do so before it otherwise appeared in its modern form. I don't pretend to know anything about his way of working, but he certainly seems to have coopted some words, as the use of 'seersucker' shows. Of course 'nerd' would be an easy enough word to invent from scratch.

    I did reread the post and realise that you were probably talking about the concept rather than the word – but in my defence you mentioned both, so the beginning of the second paragraph was ambiguous :-) Thanks for the extremely detailed reply though!

  21. Jason said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    Having read the thread, I now demand a gigantic flame-war over whether "alpha nerd" signifies the top nerd (as in "alpha male"), or the lowest nerd (as in "alpha-version.") We must abuse each other, denounce each other, traduce each other, find new poetic insults to encompass the sheer wronginosity of the other party, in order to settle this Very Important Issue.

  22. Kee said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    I can't help but think the beta nerd is the one still undergoing testing in the hopes that most of the bugs will get worked out before s/he is released on the general public. But then, I suppose an alpha-nerd that is the top dog in the nerd hierarchy may also be the one that needs the most work when it comes to smoothing out interactions with the general public.

    Of course, I suppose it all gets mooted if the nerd in question also claims to be the Messiah.

  23. Matt said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    I like that Jim Burrows has an "emotional favorite" etymology that he recognizes is nevertheless almost certainly wrong. I felt the same way upon discovering that there was a 17th-century treatise about backgammon (cf myl's comment above) called "Historia nerdiludii".

    I only hope that when the definitive history of Magic: the Gathering is written, this title gets repurposed somehow.

    [(myl) This calls for a screenshot:

    Got to watch out for those (la)trunculi.

    Curiously, there is no weblog named Nerdiludii, nor even a web pseudonym. In fact, when I search for "nerdiludii", Helpful Google offers me hits for "nerdielady" instead, though this is not at all the same thing.]

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