Dr. Seuss, as a franchise, has had a rough week all things considered. There was renewed controversy about his books which even led to some of them being taken off of shelves and out of circulation because of unfortunate character depictions. But one of those books did have an interesting claim to fame. It seems that the book If I Ran a Zoo is credited with popularizing the word “Nerd” in our everyday lexicon.
This historical perspective on the word “nerd” comes from Jim Burrows who runs the site eldacur.com. The website has a number of different subpages, but one of them deals with the historical deep-diving he’s done on the word and its origins in text. From what Burrows has determined If I Ran a Zoo is the first time the word has a specified use in a text and credits it with bringing it to the lips of school-aged kids everywhere looking to pick on someone smarter than them.
In the Dr. Seuss book, the main character who is running the zoo wants to “sail to Ka-Troo” to find a number of different silly-sounding creatures. One of them is a Nerd (there’s also a Nerkle, a Preep and a Proo). In examining works over the years, Burrows feels this book is where the word really started to take off and become part of our language. Check out Seuss’s depiction of a Nerd in the book.
This is what Burrows believes is the initial use of the word and the subsequent picture of the character does help lend it more than a little credence. Could the character’s resemblance to Albert Einstein with the unruly white hair flowing out in every direction have helped popularize the word for its current use? That’s just conjecture on my part, but there do seem to be some similarities. And we know now what the word nerd has become. I doubt this was the original intention of Dr. Seuss, but the word has stuck regardless.
Now, whether popularizing a word that some also consider hurtful is a claim to fame is in the eye of the beholder. What we do know is that the book If I Ran a Zoo won’t be bringing the word to the minds of new readers moving forward. That’s because the publisher of Dr. Seuss books has decided to remove this and five other books from circulation. This stems from an audit the publisher did on all of the author’s works and found that there were offensive and racist depictions of people and characters in these particular ones.
The decision about the books and which ones to continue selling came last week. It was then, during Dr. Seuss week that Random House decided to pull If I Ran a Zoo as well as Scrambled Eggs Super!, The Cat’s Quizzer, And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street, On Beyond Zebra!, and McElligot’s Pool.
We might never be able to confirm whether Dr. Seuss originally coined the term “nerd” for its current daily use. But we do know that the book it came from won’t be around anymore. It’s no longer on shelves and even eBay is taking listings down.