As a language nerd I have always been fascinated by the etymology of words, especially since I wanted to know where they come from and how they have changed over time. I felt compelled to share my experience in this blog when I accidentaly stumbled upon a word that made me realise the origin of the word “nerd”! Well, as a language nerd I believe it must be the origin, but others may contest it.
The word I found was the Anglo-Saxon (or Old Norse) word “cneordlæcan”, which means “to study”. It is composed by the word “cneord”, which means “diligent”, “eager” or “zealous”, and the word ”læcan” which means to play (compare to the Swedish word “leka”). Now, studying is a something many nerds do, and the hobbies they dig deep into are often regarded by others as playing, while for the nerd it is indeed very serious. This is of course just a coincidental fact! Nevertheless, I find model trains to be an interesting hobby and I get quite upset when the bricks of buildings or train couplings are not in scale. And yes, nerds are known to become obsessed by details…. 🤓
How do new words come to exists? I believe it is often done by playing with words, mixing letters, misusing words or pronunciations. Take the Swedish word “fika” as an example, which means to have a cup of coffee with some sweet, preferably a cinnamon bun. Some say it comes from the word “coffee” (“Kaffe” in Swedish), which in some dialects is pronounced “kaffi”, and by scrambling the letters (a.k.a. back slang) you get “fika”. Sounds far fetched? Well people like playing with words and in the case of the word “nerd”, I can imagine philology students at some university studying Old Norse. When learning the funny sounding word “cneord”, of course they wanted to make fun of their diligently studying fellow students, saying that they were “cneords”.
Of course the combination of the hard sounding “c”, i.e. “k” is hard to pronounce for an English speaker whenever it is followed by an “n”. So obviously “c” becomes silent as it does in words like “know”, “knee” and “knife”. Please note that all these seems to have been spelled in Anglo-Saxon with “c” and not “k”. Also note that earlier some used the spelling “gnurd” for nerd!
In any case, nerds are known to diligently study things and seriously play with things that less nerdy people find quite boring or useless. But wait! Where does the word “cneord” itself come from?!….