Nerds These Days
What's the sitch with nerds these days?
Like other words that catch the right gust of wind and end up used in far-flung corners of our language, the noun “nerd,” has drifted from its humble origins.
As far as etymologists can discern, the word was likely an alteration of the 1940s slang term “nert,” itself an alteration of “nut,” and similarly used to refer to a “stupid or crazy person.” In its current form, nerd was popularized by Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, when he used it in his book, If I Ran the Zoo, in 1950. [See Figure 1 for the character he used it to describe.]
Suffice it to say, the word began as a straight-up diss. It evolved into a more specific putdown in the 70s, when it was included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, defined as, “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” These were the golden years of the word, when it was earnestly shouted by muscled athletes and greasy cigarette smokers at the underdeveloped adolescents interested in math, at the shy xylophone enthusiasts, and at the mucusy teenagers reading Tolstoy with all of their shirt buttons fastened.
During those early years of popularity, (we here at whatsthesitch.com like to imagine) the word held a certain authenticity to those both using and receiving it. It was a simpler time, where everyone understood the intended communication when nerd was said. And that intended message was that the target was both quirky in their interests AND socially stunted.
In 1984 the prevailing attitudes toward nerds began to shift, with the blockbuster movie, Revenge of the Nerds, from 20th Century Fox. This movie, which classically pits the jocks versus the nerds, portrays the nerds as the protagonists that movie-goers are actually compelled to root for. And, in a surprising twist, the nerds win in the end.
This shattered preconceived notions about who nerds were and what they were capable of. Nerds can best jocks in certain competitions? They can even land a legitimate joke or two? Occasionally the strong, beautiful people don’t win? Pockets of resistance stirred, as people began to have the revolutionary thought, “Maybe I’m a nerd… and that’s ok?”
This idea spread like a virus, evolved, eventually becoming something akin to, “Nerds are smart and focused! Those are good things. I want to be a nerd.” Nowadays, even those whoare obviously not, “unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept,” claim partial nerdiness, fracturing the original holistic concept into a slipshod adjective used to describe one small part of an otherwise non-nerdy identity. In its present form, to claim nerd-status, one merely needs to indicate anything at all they are somewhat interested in.
“I’m such a nerd when it comes to NCAA basketball.” “I’m the biggest beer nerd around.” “I bet I’m a bigger nerd than you about gardening.”
This generalized, coopted version of the word is a diluted variant of the former. Nerds used to relish the fact that they were excited about things other people weren’t stimulated by. And they used to take solace in the fact that, while they were not part of the “in” crowd, at least they had their books, and role-playing games, and their title. They used to ridicule the masses from their bedrooms, silently claiming superiority over all those who made fun of them. They were able to find each other using various fantasy and science fiction-based symbols, then band together to commiserate about how lame the non-nerds were, and how they wouldn’t want to hang out with them even if invited. These days, they aren’t even sure if they themselves are nerds anymore; now they might just be people without many friends.
With the internet it is easier than ever to find like-minded trolls on deep-net forums. But in the real world it is harder and harder for young nerds to tell true nerds from those who just want to claim nerdiness for its positive connotations, while shirking the difficult responsibilities associated with the rest of the definition. With the progress made on accepting individuals for who they are, and with the accompanying push for political correctness, people are feeling more and more free to pursue their quirky interests regardless of their social aptitude or physical beauty. There are prom kings playing League of Legends, poindexters going deer hunting, star volleyball players studying physics, and acne-smothered dweebs driving Porsches paid for by their fantasy-sports-related internet startup. There are weight-lifting Magic: the Gathering players, and linguists who are NFL fans. There are rich preps, who usually wear Ralph Lauren, but today are costumed and on their way to Comic-Con.
What does the word nerd mean anymore? Would anyone actually be insulted if they were called one? Unfortunately, no. We’ve lost a useful insult and descriptor in exchange for another way to be pretentious and self-aggrandizing.
You may be asking, is this such a bad thing? To change an insulting word that marginalized a specific group of people for decades?We aren’t here to argue whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ We here at whatsthesitch.com aren’t so sure that those labels are functional in any real descriptive sense. We are here to argue that words with specificity, like the original version of nerd, are interesting and fun to use, unlike the words interesting and fun.
And we are also here to argue that people love to humble brag. It’s one of people’s favorite things to do. And the word nerd has become a perfect way to do so; to express that you are ‘talented at,’ or ‘focused on,’ or ‘knowledgable about,’ something, without having to say so using such direct vocabulary. “I’m such a nerd when it comes to European history,” says some guy who read one book one time about one European war. We here at whatsthesitch.com wish such people would just recount a fun fact from the book and move on, without subjecting everyone at the party to your faux-nerdiness. You aren’t special. The real European history nerd, who isn’t at a party that night, but rather is reading alone at his local library, wearing suspenders… he just felt a shudder down his spine.
Take the word back from it’s colonizers. #letnerdsbenerds