TT: A Nerd Is A Nerd Is A…

JANE: Last time, when we were discussing stereotypes associated with people who are good with computers, I found myself reflecting how what people mean by “nerd” and “geek” has changed.

Geeking Out

When I was a kid, there was absolutely nothing complimentary about the term “nerd.”  It conjured an abstract image of someone who wore thick glasses; who dressed not just unfashionably, but with no sense of what would look remotely good; and who was completely socially inept.

Did the word have the same meaning in England?

ALAN: I don’t think so – but I’m not really sure. When I was at school we certainly knew people of that type, but I can’t remember if we had a word to describe them. Or maybe we called them “drips”. That rings faint bells…

The internet, that infallible source of all knowledge, tells me that nerd first appeared in American teenage slang in the 1950s. So it probably didn’t migrate to English slang until quite some time later, after I left school.

JANE: Then there’s “geek.”  I’m not really sure when that word started showing up.  Its meaning was slightly more complimentary than nerd, since “geek” usually implied some intellectual capacity.  Nerds could be stupid, as well as all the rest, but geeks were nerds with brains.

ALAN: Geek is a very interesting word. I first came across it in a short story (I think it was a Fredric Brown story, but I won’t swear to that) where it was used to describe a carnival sideshow where someone bit the head off a live chicken. Wikipedia tells me that the word derives from the Middle Low German work geck meaning a fool or a freak and that geek shows where performers used their teeth to decapitate chickens, rats, lizards and goodness knows what else were quite common in nineteenth-century North American circuses and travelling carnivals.

JANE: Urrgh…

ALAN: Quite how the word moved on from that rather disgusting origin to acquire its current meaning seems to be something of a mystery. Again, Wikipedia informs me that the only definition of geek in the 1975 American Heritage Dictionary was the carnival performer. So its current meaning must be a relatively recent formation. Perhaps from the early 1980s? Obviously I’m just guessing here.

JANE: Maybe some of our readers can fill us in on when and how the transition happened.

Going back to nerds for a moment, a few years ago, when I was comparing high school experiences with some friends who are a good bit younger than I am, one of them said, when explaining how their group had not fit in with the other students, “Basically, we were nerds.”

I was distinctly startled.  I’d known these people, at least in passing, at that point in their lives.  They certainly hadn’t fit my idea of what a “nerd” was.  Eventually, I realized that the word “nerd” had become conflated with “geek,” and that even “geek” was considered more complimentary than it had been.  The words remained the same, but the meaning, and therefore the stereotype, had shifted.

I’m not sure what words are currently used for the former nerds and geeks.  Maybe in this politically correct modern world, the stereotype has vanished.

ALAN: I don’t think the stereotype has vanished, it’s just gained a bit of respectability.

JANE: That does seem to be the case.  Even mainstream catalogs now have shirts with slogans that proclaim geek culture.

 A popular SF/F blogsite I follow is called Black Girl Nerds.  “Geeking out” about something simply means becoming very interested in it – rather as the word “fanatic” (which had very negative connotations) morphed into the more acceptable “fan.”

ALAN: The obvious area where this applies would be sports. When I was a child, my mother and father were fanatical watchers of the Wimbledon tennis tournaments. When the season started they drew the curtains to shut the world away, and huddled themselves around the television. We ate sandwiches for every meal because sandwiches were quick to prepare and therefore didn’t interfere with the tennis too much. Nobody thought my parents were strange for behaving like this…

Here in New Zealand both rugby and cricket are followed so fanatically that sometimes people joke that they amount to a religion – and the joke only works because there’s more than a degree of truth in it. Shortly after I first moved here, there was a crisis in the Middle East (just like always), and the Israeli air force bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility. The headline on the front page of the newspaper here was: “Young Man Dies of Rugby Injury”.

JANE: Fans, of course, are found in many areas of interest, although off the cuff I can’t think of any other area than sports that uses the term “fan” to identify its membership.  Knitters, for example, can be fanatical, but they don’t call themselves “fans.”

ALAN: People often have very strong feelings about the kind of music they enjoy. Personally, I have quite eclectic tastes, but nevertheless I would certainly describe myself as a folk music fan, particularly when it overlaps with pretentious progressive rock! I have a friend who is so fanatical about heavy metal music that he has been known to travel to the far end of the country just to attend a live concert.

JANE: Yes!  Fan definitely applies to music as well.  I’m certain our readers will have some suggestions as to other areas.

We’re into the dangerous TL/DR zone, so let’s save the engrossing subject of the SF/F fan for next time!

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3 Responses to “TT: A Nerd Is A Nerd Is A…”

  1. Peter Says:

    Speaking as a linguistics geek, tracing changes like this with any precision is really difficult, since changes in verbal speech generally come first, and it can take time for them to show up in writing (which is much easier to track.)

    Best guess is that the de-chicken-head-biting-off-ization of the word hit somewhere in the early 1980s, since that’s when it starts to show up in its modern sense (although it was still much more derogatory than it – often – is now.)

  2. CBI Says:

    In observing my kids and current adolescents, I’m seeing both “fan” and “geek” used descriptively in many different areas. They both refer to above-average devotion or time spent concerning an activity or area of interest.

    The main difference I observe is that “fan” is usually passive, in the sense of being an observer, while “geek” is usually active, referring to an actor or participant. Thus (in high school), there are the “band geeks” and the “band fans”. This would be most apparent when the actor is a single individual: a “Jane Lindskold fan”, but not a “Jane Lindskold geek”. Of course, that is a snapshot: who knows how the language will or does vary!

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