There are words in our daily language that we use loosely. We assume that we know what they mean, and what others think of when we use them. But, when we take a closer look, it seems that some of those words are not so crystal clear after all. Mainly because they evolve over time. “Nerd” is one of those words.
What does it mean to be “nerdy”?
Is a nerd someone who has a special interest that only few others have? Is it someone who is highly intelligent, but doesn’t know how to behave in social contexts? Or is it just someone who is very passionate about any given topic?
Today, nerdom seems to be the description of almost any kid of obsession. You can be a book nerd, a music nerd, or a sports nerd. The term “nerd” is used broadly today. But originally being nerdy implied one thing: being smart.
The Urban Dictionary (which is always a good source to consult when it comes to pop culture questions) defines the “nerd” as “One whose IQ exceeds his weight.”. Almost 42.000 people agree with this definition and rated it the top definition of the term “nerd”. But this definition dates from 2003. Does it really answer the question what nerd culture is today?
Other definitions in The Urban Dictionary, also from around this time, include:
The 20 words related to the term “nerd” in The Urban Dictionary include the words “lame” and “awesome”. So, whatever a nerd is, it seems to be a pretty controversial topic.
The evolution of nerd culture
The earliest use of the term “nerd” dates back to the 1950s and spread in the United States during the 1960s. The term was almost exclusively used pejoratively and originally described an anti-social tech guy. Being a “nerd” was equivalent to being a loser. But then the perception of the nerd seems to have changed. It’s hard to say where this point in time might have been exactly, but when Fall Out Boy portrayed the nerd in their 2005 music video “Dance Dance” nerd culture somehow became cool. (This was also around the time when typical nerd glasses started to become a mainstream phenomenon.) Suddenly, the term “nerd” was not only used for tech guys anymore, but for intellectuals of any discipline. People started to use the term less pejoratively, and being nerdy became a thing one could be proud of. Nerdom even has its own “Geek Pride Day”, which is celebrated to promote nerd culture.
The term “nerd” has obviously been reclaimed and redefined by some as a term of pride and group identity, as often happens with pejoratives. Then, the term evolved even more, so that, today, it is even applicable to an “obsession with a topic that would otherwise be mainstream”, as long as this obsession can be considered “heavy”.
Today, when we talk about nerds we namedrop Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, which are veritable tech heroes. The term “nerd” seems to have a mainly positive connotation now – depending on who you ask, of course; but it is definitely the case in intellectual circles. Historic nerds are celebrated, like in the case of Nikola Tesla, and their lives are even made into movies like in the case of Alan Turing.
It seems that nerd culture has met the fate of many subcultures before: it has been picked up by mainstream culture. Being nerdy is finally cool. Today, being nerdy is used as an equivalent to being extraordinary. Everybody who is passionate about something is a called a “nerd”. Hence, non-nerds are simply boring people living insignificant lives.
The broad use of nerdom by all kinds of people might upset some original nerds, but, on the other hand, it has led to intellectuals being widely accepted by the general public, and to a society that is overall more tolerant towards its members, whether they are athletic or clumsy, smart or average, interested in highly specialized topics or just happy to watch TV in the evening.
From today’s understanding, a nerd is someone who has found his or her passion and is not afraid to live it, no matter what others might think.
So, the real question is not: Are you a nerd?
The real question is: What type of nerd are you?