I mentioned last week that I’ve been enjoying Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been around my blog long enough to take note of my fascination with words, etymologies, and words like etymology. And yet somehow, in spite of my fully disclosed nerdiness, I have caught more than one person spreading online rumors about me: They’ve said I’m cool.
I think cool is subjective, and I’m not particularly interested in dissecting it. What I am interested in is how an acknowledged nerd could be designated a term widely accepted as un-nerdy. What I want to dissect is the word nerd and its cultural cousins, geek and dork, which is, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin Nugent, “a nerdy thing to do.”
Like any good nerd, the first thing I did was happily research my subject. What I found was that Dictionary.com, culling several established dictionaries, provided outdated denotations indicating that nerd referred to a stupid person; meanwhile, Urban Dictionary, allowing a capricious range of wiki entries, offered current connotations indicating that nerd referred to a highly intelligent person. Unsurprisingly, both sources tended to indicate that a nerd was not cool.
As culture is made of connotations, not denotations, it’s easy to dismiss the antiquated definitions. But I find even many of the current standard meanings sub-standard. And so, also like a good nerd, I set about to make order of it all.
First, nerds are highly intelligent. But nerds are not merely intelligent; they are intelligent with an academic bent, about which they are passionate. Case in point: One of my favorite college courses was Advanced Grammar, in which I not only diagrammed the hell out of sentences, I enjoyed doing it.
Note here that nerds ought not be confused with geeks, whom current culture describes as often (but not necessarily) being highly intelligent with a technological bent. Geeks tend to be less academic-minded, more skilled with electronics, and more interested in science fiction than are nerds. But nerds and geeks can certainly get along; sometimes geeks even let nerds handle their lightsabers. (Shout-out to Database Administrator Husband!)
Second, nerds are not necessarily marked by social ineptitude. To be sure, a fair number of nerds are so marked; but, perhaps increasingly, many nerds are socially skilled and culturally engaged. Case in point: I wrote this post and then cajoled you into reading it. (No take-backs.)
Whereas nerds are not necessarily socially awkward, dorks unequivocally are. Also to the dorks’ detriment is that above-average intelligence is not a required marker. A smart dork and a socially inept nerd are as close as these cousins get, but they remain distinct: The nerd will still be offended at the comparison.
So how can an obvious nerd ever be mistaken for cool? Willful deceit notwithstanding, I can postulate only this: As it changed, remarkably, from “stupid” to “highly intelligent,” so nerd has evolved once more.
Nerd now encompasses a wide range of people passionate about their academic gifting. So recruit your favorite geek to make this thing go viral– Nerd is the new cool.
Tell me about yourself:
Are you a nerd, a geek, a dork, or something else entirely?
And, if you don’t mind getting personal, do you have a “lightsaber” or a “pocket protector?”