Saturday, December 3, 2011

What the Hell is a Nerd?

I tried to think of a more poetic title to use for this post, but that one sums it up the best. I first heard the word "nerd" when I was in elementary school, applied by another girl towards me; I wasn't sure what it meant, but knew it was bad. In the years since then, I've heard any number of meanings for it (or its close cousin, "geek") but am still fairly unsure. Moreover, I've found that casual use of the label, even towards oneself, comes with a whole host of baggage and problems.

One of my professors disapproves of using the word when children are nearby- adults may know it's not a bad thing, but children won't, and will fear being called those mean names if they show an interest in their schoolwork. I've heard others argue that nerd should remain an insult; that identity is all they had when they were younger, and it's infuriating when pretty girls or cool boys try to take that identity from them, wearing retro Nintendo t-shirts without knowing what it is to be picked on and excluded.

My initial problem with the word still stands- what the hell does it mean? Does it mean virginal scientists? Married Star Trek fans? Mensa members? Straight-A students? Boys who like Halo? Girls who like Harry Potter? Social rejects? Cute kids with glasses? Do you have to complete a long checklist that includes all of the above and more, or is it just a state of mind?

Labeling shouldn't be important, but all too often it is. Humans like forming tribes, and we like having ways to distinguish ourselves from others (or the other way around.) Expanding a label risks making it meaningless, and limiting it may mean kicking out people who "deserve" it just as much as we do (and is ultimately unenforceable in a court of law.) Given the unique range of characteristics in any given person, labels are generally incomplete to describe them (that Star Trek fan may have been a star football player in high school- does he still count as a nerd?) Labels can be insults applied to people we dislike, or they can be impossible standards we try to measure up to. (Jillian Venters, Headmistress of Gothic Charm School, has written about the folly of defining "how goth you are" by how you measure up to others.)

So what the hell is a nerd? I didn't know in first grade and I don't know now. I still use the word at times, but I've become much less confident about it. And I have learned, at the least, to be mindful of the company in which I say it.


  1. Nice post. I chatted with my wife a bit about this and she had some interesting insights:

    To her, a nerd is someone who both lacks a certain level of social/emotional intelligence and is specialized or extremely knowledgeable about a particular field of study, one with "practical" applications (science, math, etc.).

    A geek is like a nerd, but is extremely knowledgeable about something that others would consider trivial or without practical applications. Of course, many geeks have made careers off their respective fields, but being a master of, say, Star Trek trivia is not considered by most folks to be in the same arena as studying nuclear physics.

    For me, growing up in the 80s, a nerd was someone with glasses and a pocket protector, often the butt of jokes on sitcoms. I was mortally afraid of needing glasses my whole childhood. When I eventually broke down and got them in 8th grade, I thought my life had ended. It's like that Simpsons where Bart gets glasses and he and Milhouse see each others' reflections in their lenses: "I'm a nerd!" "So am I!"

  2. Sorry you had to go through that! I've used your wife's definitions of the terms in the past, I've just found they're a lot more loaded than I previously thought.

  3. Very thought provoking. I'm with you on this one. I don't know what a nerd is either! I've been called one, by everyone it seems, but the term seems meaningless anymore. It used to have a very defined meaning several decades ago, but today not so much. It's just kind of something people throw around without much thought.