The Essential Nerd

Once Revenge of the Nerds type movies started hitting the big screen, a lot of people started taking pride in self-identifying as Nerds. All the people I know who refer to themselves as Nerds aren’t really Nerds as far as I can see. People who really are Nerds never seem to call themselves Nerds.

What’s your definition of a Nerd? Someone who is highly intelligent, engages in unusual hobbies, knows stuff most other people don’t know or even care about and doesn’t follow trends? All that is cool stuff. Everybody likes to think of themselves as being a little like that.

But, I think to be an authentic Nerd, if there is such a thing, also means being unpopular, socially inept to a lesser or greater degree and generally being unable to discourse, connect or even really converse with people.

I don’t think Nerds are unpopular because they’re intelligent. Only very ignorant people dislike people who are smart. No, I think Nerds are unpopular because they lack the necessary social skills to make them able to engage with people. And they don’t seem to be able to fun – at least not by the conventionally accepted sense of the concept. It’s difficult to hang around with people who don’t understand fun.

The term Nerd came from the Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo. Dr. Seuss’ Nerd doesn’t look like much fun, does he?nerd

 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!

 In the early 1950s Nerd became a slang word synonymous with “square” or “drip”. So, long before the word also took on the above-average intelligence connotation (in the 1960s), it meant someone who was out-of-it socially.

Not only do Nerds not care about keeping up with trends or fashion or being able to make small talk or knowing how to groom themselves so they look their best; the don’t know how. They have more important things to think and worry about. But, every human being (especially when they’re teenagers when this labeling really takes root) wants to be liked and accepted by others.

Those labeled Nerds usually had a hell of a time growing up. No dates. No parties. No dances. No friends. They sucked at sports. They were laughed at; shoved into lockers, bullied, and picked on. They probably would have given anything to make all that go away. And yet, I don’t think any authentic Nerd would trade any of his/her intelligence for popularity. Would they?

As adults, Nerds might have a bit of an easier time of it. They seem to become immersed in their work and the rest of the world recedes and affects them less and less. I don’t know. I’m supposing. I’ve never asked them. I’m just going by my observations. How do you ask someone you think is a Nerd something like that?

Anyway, are we changing the meaning of the word Nerd to mean anyone who thinks of themselves as an individual, is maybe a bit eccentric and sometimes dresses like Richie Cunningham? Because those kinds of Nerds are super-cool right now – trendy even. This is pretty much the opposite of what the word used to mean. Because the eggheads with the weird hair and painfully awkward social manner are as unpopular as ever, right?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you a Nerd?
  • Have you ever called yourself a Nerd?
  • Do you know a Nerd?
  • Are you close friends with a Nerd?
  • Is it easier to be a Nerd as an adult than it was as a kid?
  • Are Nerds fun to be with?
  • Why is it cool to call yourself a Nerd?
  • What do real Nerds call themselves?
  • Would a Nerd trade some intelligence for some popularity?
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33 responses to “The Essential Nerd

  1. I was a nerd in Grade 7. I was the smartest kid in the class. And a late-bloomer. At 14, I could pass for 12. I was the one picked for sports teams, etc…

    i.e I was the perfect candidate for bullies to pick on.

    But within 2-3 years, I learned to adapt. I became the class clown.

    Soon, the bullies found out it was more fun to laughing WITH me, than to laught AT me.

    And I never looked back. The class-clown persona stuck…to this day.

    (Gee….can you TELL?) 😉

  2. My favorite question: What do real Nerds call themselves? LOL!

    I find it very difficult to poke any holes in your thesis. It does seem to have happened, though, that calling oneself a Nerd is “cute”. Sort of like, “love me, I’ve been through a lot, but aren’t I cool now in a dorky sort of way?” Even though they weren’t ever nerdy, just boring, and really haven’t been through much at all.

    I vote Best Original Thought for this post.

  3. Some have called me a nerd before but it was mostly my psycho cousin who hated anyone who was smarter than him in school. I returned the favor and I hated him because he was a bully and dumber than I am.

  4. No one ever called me a nerd, but a lot of what you’ve described fit me to a T, except for the physical bullying. I was bigger than most of the bullies… not fat, just bigger.

    One of the bullies once went so far as to call me out. Scared stiff, I waited in the boys room, but he never showed. He went to the principle’s office instead. We both got popped with the paddle on the bottom for that one.

    I wasn’t bothered after that.

  5. I would probably call myself more of a “horror nerd” or “art nerd” than a nerd nerd. All nerds are great fun in their own way. You just have to catch them in their individual “element”. 🙂

  6. I always felt like an outsider because I was shy but, due to lack of a high IQ, I wouldn’t have been considered a nerd. My junior high and high school days were before computer geeks and the like and I don’t remember anyone being what is now called a nerd. I guess Einstein would have been considered one.

  7. Friar – No! Really? YOU? A class clown?

    Amy – Thanks Amy. It’s weird how that happened, isn’t it? For the longest time, Nerds were social pariahs, now they’re what everyone wants to be – the “in” thing.

    Dr. Monkey – But you were all cool with your gang of pot-head friends; there’s no way you could be called a Nerd.

    Mike – So you just missed out on being a Nerd because you were big? I don’t think you can be a Nerd and be physically imposing. The saying goes that Nerds “weigh less than their IQs”. Glad you dealt with the bullying.

    Hannah – I’m pretty sure you can’t specify a genre of Nerdom. You’re just an afficionado of horror or art. I’m curious to know in what way Nerds can be great fun? I always feel really stupid when I speak to one. I don’t understand what they say and they don’t understand what I’m saying. It’s like being in a foreign country except without the yummy pastries.

    Linda – I understand Einstein was quite a goofball when he wasn’t immersed in physics. I remember having nerds in high school — and they were working on computers long before the rest of us even knew what computers were. I’m not sure if we called them nerds or something else.

  8. Like Friar, I became a class clown to try to overcome nerdiness.

    To answer Amy’s preferred question, we call ourselves Grouches, but then I dislike labels in general because it’s impossible to agree on their definitions.

    XUP – in anticipation of your next comment, just because I can act social doesn’t mean it comes naturally. It often takes a heckuva lot of energy to pull off–which is sometimes worth it, and sometimes better spent obsessing on things.

    – RG>

  9. I have always fit into so many of your definitions of what a nerd is. I escaped terminal nerdiness thanks to a great group of cool guys who took me under their collective wing, liked me despite my nerd tendencies, and worked hard to counteract them. They are, to this day, my true friends and support system.

    Computer geeks of the PC/Mac generation can blame a lot of their nerdiness on spending way too much time in front of their monitors, and not developing social skills. Trust me, I know a couple of these kids. The only time they left their monitors was to watch Star Trek and Star Wars over and over again. Consequently, all they can discuss is scenes from those TV series and movies. I call them socially retarded. Their species usually lack tact and basic manners, too.

    This IS a good post. Very thought-provoking.

  10. I never knew the expression “nerds weigh less than their IQ”. Very interesting.

    I wonder why some people don’t have good social skills, or for that matter, know that they should attend to their grooming more than they do. I have an unproved theory that my mother noticed very early on that I didn’t have good social skills and she somehow drummed them into me. But the grooming was always there. I could never understand those kids who never cleaned their glasses. I wore glasses ALL the time and they never even had scratches on them, much less dirt. How could those kids see through those dirty glasses? The horror.

    So I was not really a nerd. I did play bridge at lunchtime with the math class nerds but I wasn’t a member of the chess club. And I adore the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and can totally relate to Sheldon who I am sure has a bit of one end of the autism spectrum disorder. In fact, that was likely the main reason for most nerd’s lack of social skills – a touch of autism. That and/or being an introvert, which I was/am also. Introverts just aren’t as loud as their extrovert classmates and they fall by the wayside in some respects. And as Grouchy says, we can socialize if we want to but it takes a whole lot of energy which has to be spent judiciously and thereafter renewed at some cost.

  11. Coyote – Arrgghhhh! Venn diagrams are so Nerdy.

    Grouchy – See, a real Nerd wouldn’t know how to be a clown and would be too wrapped up in Venn diagrams and stuff to concern him/herself with whether or not the classmates like him/her. “Acting social” doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people whether or not they are Nerds. Some people are naturally social, but those who have to act social in order to get along with folk are quite numerous, I’d say. So, although you seem to have the IQ/weight ratio and the odd hobbies thing, I think you’re too socially evolved to really wear the Nerd label.

    Bob – Thanks Bob. I’m willing to give true geniuses a pass on having to have social skills or be polite and stuff. We need these people to focus on the important work that they and only they can do. I, for one, don’t want to distract them from finding cures for cancer and stuff just to teach them some manners.

    Julia – I think you autism/genius correlation might be correct. I love Sheldon on Big Bang, too. I’d hate to be his room-mate or even friend, but he’s a good TV character. I think they just lack social/grooming skills because they just don’t care about that stuff. In the same way that I lack knitting/sewing skills or home decorating skills. In many ways it would be so great to be able to make myself an outfit or a sweater or have a beautifully put together home, but when it come right down to it, I just don’t care enough about those things to bother learning them. I put my energies elsewhere. So, while a Nerd might yearn to be invited to the fun parties or to date the cheerleader, the yearning isn’t strong enough to make him seek out ways to dress and groom himself to make the most of his assets and to learn the social niceties that will help him get on with people.

  12. @XUP

    Never understood the whole point of Venn diagrams.

    I mean, when have we ever used them, outside of Grade 6?

    (But maybe if I was a nerd, I wouldn’t be asking this question).

  13. We call ourselves “geeks” a lot, but the sad truth is I’m not even a great geek. I know enough lines from Star Wars and know a lot about Dilithium Crystals (“Star Trek”) to make a regular person think I’m a geek, but to the true geeks of those “worlds” I would just be considered a wannabe. I also know a lot of real science and love to look at stuff under my microscope and crave everything astronomy. In high school I dressed preppy and was a secret pot head, the same as all my friends so I don’t know what we may have been called. I did know a true nerd according to your definitions. He was in my advanced English class and I called him “Webster.” He even wrote in my yearbook, “Please don’t call me Webster anymore” but I imagine he was secretly pleased that I even asked him to sign it. He was so odd that I spoke to him quite often just trying to figure him out, but I never did ask him why he didn’t wash his hair.

  14. @Friar, I went looking for this blogger who uses Venn diagrams and found her but also this one page you may find interesting:
    http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/12219

    The blogger is at http://thisisindexed.com/

    XUP, I may yet blog again! But I seem to be so distracted by my other life, I am not sure when. I haven’t even sewed since before I went to California. *some kinda sigh* Maybe something big is brewing in my head and suddenly, it will spew out all over – in a good way.

    I seem to be doing all my good writing in emails and blog comments.

  15. Overheard at my 40th high school reunion homecoming football game, said by a former jock “look how all the nerds turned out. They’re all well off while we jocks just have worn out bodies”. The nerds were the smart ones, who got good grades, especially in science and math, and didn’t bother a lot with sports.

  16. I think term nerd and geek have become interchangable but a nerd has no social skills or personal hygene. A geek is someone who is obsessed to the exclusion of all else about a single subject, usually technology.

    I have never been labelled as either as neither fit.

    As Friar said and if Brett ever bother to show up he’d agree, the people labelled a geek or nerd are actually people who march to their own drum and we all know how much the herd loves people who do that!

    Eyegeekguy

  17. i was never accused of being a nerd. was astrocized for awhile for sticking up for a “nerd” in the girls changeroom in middle school one. it was unbelievable how mean these girls were being to her for being….smart?

  18. Grouchy – Nuh – huh! “Socially evolved” is a relative term though, so don’t fret. You’re no Paris Hilton.

    Friar – It was a cute and colourful Venn diagram though and clarified for me the difference between nerds, dweebs, geeks and dorks.

    Geewits – Webster, if you’re listening, why did you never wash your hair??? If I had to label you, Geewits, I’d call you a Renaissance woman. (Not that I’d ever label you)

    Susan – That’s what I keep telling my daughter – go for the nerds; they’ll be the doctors and financiers one day while the good looking guys will be assistant managers at Mr. Lube (and giggle about the name every day)

    Eyeteaguy – Ya, what’s up with Brett anyway? Why does he never visit? You should look at the Venn diagram Coyote linked to. It illustrates the differences and similarities between geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks. Very useful.

    Meanie – Were they being mean to her just because she was smart? Or was she a social reject, too? Did she dress nicely? Have clean hair? Look after herself? Was she able to engage in social intercourse? In my experience kids had to have a lot of weird stuff going on before they were considered nerds. But how very un-meanie of you to befriend her.

  19. I am a geek, not a nerd. The terms are *not* interchangeable for those who are labeled one or the other.

    I am also a hot geek. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing; whereas a hot nerd is a contradiction. (Must do fact-checking.)

    My serious scientific poll on Google showed 6 million hits on “hot nerd” and 22 million on “hot geek”. So I guess the former is possible. Who knew?

    I’m still a geek.

  20. I think “good nerds” are actually what I call geeks. The nerds doesn’t know he’s a nerd… he doesn’t know that he lacks the social skills and has a skewed perception of self.

    A geek is very aware of who s/he is… usually smart funny and engaging. Sometimes terribly sexy too.

    Nerds never ever are.

  21. she was quite smart, pretty unattractive, dressed in a bizarre fashion, and acted strange, but could it all have been a defense mechanism? she even had an unfortunate name.
    my older brother had been bullied, i think that’s why i was pretty sensitive towards the underdog (still am) – in fact i rage a bit when i see bullying going on.

  22. I was a nerd in middle school and half way through high school. But I grew out of it. I would say that nerds are socially inept and dont’ fit in with the cliques that are so necessary to survive middle and high school.

    Geeks on the other hand are a different story. That term has transformed into something that has lost the negative connotation (spelling?) that nerd has. A geek is someone who is technologically savvy and proficient beyond that of the average mortal.

    I am a self labeled computer geek. My first blog (now running for 5+ years and recently defunct) is about language teaching with a focus on technology – EFL Geek.

    Popularity is overated. I’m not interested in being popular (though it is nice at times) I’d rather have 1-3 quality friends than quantity and that’s how it’s been for most of my life. My wife wants out kids to be famous, but I shudder at the thought as I’m not interested in reading the inevitable gossip on the net that follows celebrities everywhere.

  23. I googled “Webster” after I left that comment and saw that he was mentioned as part of a fund raiser for a university library. How Webster is that? And Renaissance woman? Wouldn’t I have to be able to produce music for that?

  24. Susan – Yes, the Venn diagram agrees with you…sort of. It has no circle for “hot”. I’m not convinced that you can be a hot geek. And I’m positive you can’t be a hot nerd. Your google hits prove that people are just totally messing with the entire geek/nerd concept.

    Nat – I think some nerds know they’re socially awkward, but they can’t help it and/or don’t have time to make the effort to change that. I disagree that a geek is self-aware, funny, engaging or sexy. What makes them a geek then instead of just a regular person who knows a little more about computers (for instance) than others? To be a geek, I think, you have to totally absorbed and focused in one area — pretty much to the exclusion of most other areas in your life. I would agree though that the term has morphed recently to mean smart AND sexy.

    Meanie – Ya, I’m pretty sure the bullies harassed her because of her appearance rather than her intelligence. High school is merciless when it comes to having the right clothes, hair, social attitude. It sucks and so do bullies. And it’s very difficult for people to stand up to “the crowd” because once you align yourself with an unfortunate you could easily be ostracized by the crowd. You’re very brave and I’m furiously trying to guess what an “unfortunate” name might be…

    Sean – A lot of people think calling themselves nerds is cool, too, these days. It’s interesting how you say “Popularity is overated. I’m not interested in being popular (though it is nice at times)” It’s always nice to be generally liked and not laughed at, talked negatively about or harassed. Popularity is different than “being famous”. Being popular in high school just means that there’s always someone to have lunch with or hang out with after school; that your weekends are filled with social activity, that you can easily get dates. You’ll still only have a couple of people that you consider real friends, but the whole school experience is fun for you. I hope that’s what your wife was talking about for your kids, not Britney Spears famous??

    Geewits – Good for Webster! And, I think you can be a Renaissance woman just by virtue of having so many interests and such a handy variety of skills. I don’t think there are rules about what those skills are — or if there are rules, let’s just ignore them.

  25. i think the guys on the big bang theory show are excellent examples of true nerds. i’ve always, always leaned towards what people would call “nerds” mainly b/c they are most interesting to me and authentic. not to say the others are not b/c it’s individual, i just have a higher closeness to textbook type “nerds”.

    i think i am a nerd, i’ve been picked on, no dates (mom wouldn’t let me), no dances (mom wouldn’t let me) and boyfriends were not really welcome in our home for any length of time.

    downside of this is that i went a little bizerck after graduation to make up for lost time of never being able to do stuff. lucky for me i survived that and it didn’t last long.

    i think we all have a little nerd in us, a little cool in us, basically a little of everything.

  26. Being a nerd is cool? Really? Because you have no idea how people try to avoid me when I strike up a conversation about this really interesting book I’m reading on neuroanatomy, or ask if anyone knows the answer to 3 down in the cryptic crossword in the lunchroom at work.

    There were many, many times I wished I could be more stupid so that people would like me. (I figured I’d be too stupid to realize I was a dunderhead, so it would all work out well).

    For me, the social ostracism I experienced led to a really twisted desire to fit in with these people who were so mean to me, so I dumbed myself down until I at least got invited to parties. Sadly, I became a little too good at this. So instead of having a glittering career, curing cancer or something, I wasted my 20s working in admin and travel and drinking lots. Cutting off my nose to spite my face.

    These days, I am a strong advocate of separate academic streaming for highly gifted kids. It’s not elitist or exclusionary; it’s giving them a chance to fit in and feel valued by a group of their peers before their self loathing becomes so intense that their intelligence is a burden rather than a talent.

  27. I’m still a nerd. I have a degree in Electronic Engineering (the other girls in my class were nerds too), I know a lot about computers, I am rather intelligent (and modest!) and I don’t like people – although I have learned how to socially interact, it just takes a lot of effort, like mentioned above. I was an atypical nerd growing up though, I was good at sports and have always been fairly clean/neat. I had no friends in high school and was regularly picked on, so I learned early to ignore it.

    I think nerdism is better as an adult, because I’ve learned to not care what anyone thinks. I’m not sure if I count as quirkily cool, but oh well. My catchphrase is “I’ve never been cool before in my life, I’m not about to start now.” Is that original enough for you?

  28. I didn’t know Nerd came from Dr. Suess. Cool to know. I am not a nerd. And by your definition, only know a couple of Nerds.

  29. Leah – The TV nerds are still TV people. Their skin is clear, they’re witty, they’re even not bad looking. They are why people want to call themselves nerds these days. Real nerds are the guy on the bus with greasy hair, bad skin, weird (not in a good way) clothes who smells of not bathing for several days and is studying a text book full of loose papers crammed with notes. This is the guy my daughter wouldn’t sit next to the other day even though there were no other seats. “I thought you liked nerds” I said. “Ewww – not REAL nerds” she answered.

    Stella – Dressing like a nerd is cool. Calling yourself a nerd is cool. Being a real nerd will never be cool. But, as I said before, I don’t think it’s because they’re smart. Being smart in and of itself IS attractive to most people. It has a lot more to do with how these smart people present themselves. Striking up a conversation on neuroanatomy in the lunchroom is not a socially acceptable thing to do. How many people would you expect to have anything to contribute to such a conversation? This so-called conversation would consist of you lecturing people on the topic and/or showing off your knowledge of the subject. Which would be cool if you were addressing a group of people who had expressed an interest in learning more about neuroanatomy. To fit in and be accepted by workmates a person needs to pay attention to the things that interest others and join into their conversation. It’s not about dumbing yourself down; it’s about knowing how to interact with people, how to make “small talk”, how to chat about personal things, crack jokes, have a laugh. And I think it’s really sad that you’re blaming a group of high school kids (who you have labeled as being stupid) for your career failures.

    Amy – I’m glad you’re enjoying your adulthood. Lots of people had a hard time in high school for various reasons. Another good motto is: He who laughs last, laughs best! All that studiousness in school paid off in the long run, while I be the cool kids from school aren’t faring so well these days?

    LoLa – OK!!

    Grouchy – Except for at work and even there it doesn’t matter as much because we all have lives away from the office whereas in school that was pretty much our whole life.

  30. Amazing one right there pal. I honestly can’t wait till the fourth season is released. This show has been my favorite since the first season, it’s just addicting!