About Me
The Manifesto

Previous Posts

Ella Minnow Pea
Good Stuff: 1/05/08
The Distracting Word Meme
Phony Etymology Watch:National Treasure: Book of S...
Questions from the general public
Apples and oranges and pears, oh my
The Annual Statement from the Association of Easil...
Leaving the wrong impression
Reactive spelling
Good Stuff: 12/01/07

Back to Main


My del.ic.ious site feed


Common Errors in English
Netvibes RSS Reader
Online Etymology Dictionary
Research and Documentation
The Phrase Finder
The Trouble with EM 'n EN

A Capital Idea
Arrant Pedantry
Bradshaw of the Future
Bremer Sprachblog
Dictionary Evangelist
Double-Tongued Dictionary
English, Jack
Futility Closet - Language
Language Hat
Language Log
Mighty Red Pen
Motivated Grammar
OUPblog - Lexicography
Style & Substance
The Editor's Desk
The Engine Room
Tenser, said the Tensor
Watch Yer Language
Word Spy
You Don't Say

Dan's Webpage

Website XML feed

Explication of the Nerds
Friday, January 11, 2008   2:54 PM

So David Anderegg's Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them has been getting some press lately. I haven't read the book, but apparently the author has a wacky definition of nerd that excludes anyone who isn't focused mainly on math and science. Like, say, word nerds.

If that's incorrect... well, I make no apologies when I can't Search Inside!

It's a bit silly to quibble over the meaning of terms that come to us as reclaimed insults — that is to say, via people who really don't care whether they call you a geek or a nerd or a dork — but this definition goes against what I've (almost certainly naively) understood as a commonly-held distinction between nerds and geeks.

That would be something like what you get at the end of the Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.

A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.

A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

I consider myself mainly a geek (that is, an English geek), but I score high in all three categories. Of the three terms, only dork seems negative to me anymore. Geeky is, of course, the new cool.

(Related: In his neo-fantasist gamer novel Lucky Wander Boy, D.B. Weiss offers an eloquent albeit chauvinist definition of geek: "A geek is a person, male or female, with an abiding, obsessive, self-effacing, even self-destroying love for something besides status." He's also very critical of faux-geek chic, a.k.a. dorkface.)

There are different schools of thought on this — for example, some people think that a nerd is just a dorky geek — but Dr. Anderegg's purported definition struck me as especially unusual.

Also: since this is a book about nerds, a few of the reviewers decide to repeat the claim that Dr. Seuss coined the word nerd in 1950.

Here's the Washington Post:

(It should be noted that another literary icon actually coined the word nerd, which first appeared in 1950 in the completely irrelevant, and typically fantastic, context of Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran the Zoo": "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too.")

And here's the Economist:

How very unfortunate that Dr Seuss, whose verbal pyrotechnics have given so much pleasure to so many children, should also have given them, however innocently, the ghastly label "nerd".

It's certainly the first published occurrence of the term discovered so far, but some people, including Our Bold Hero, think that the connection between the two nerds is mere happenstance, and that Seuss' word was another whimsical one-off that went nowhere.

The website The Origin of the Nerd has the low-down on this etymological controversy, but right now the earliest citation for nerd outside of Dr. Seuss is from 1951. I doubt that I'm the only would-be antedater for whom this word has become something of a white whale.

Labels: , ,

Relieved to say I scored "pure nerd."

What's up with "dork"? -- it's the only one of the three that doesn't emphasize some kind of intellectual ability. Makes them sound . . . unfortunate.

Leave a Comment

Think reactive, not reactionary