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Complimentary with negative connotations

Shashi Tharoor

Nerd (noun), a wonk or geek, obsessively immersed in and knowledgeable about a narrow subject, but lacking social skills.

Usage: That nerd is not someone I enjoy talking to, but he knows more about computers than you or I do, so I need him.

The word nerd became a fixture of US student slang in the 1960s. The Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin uncertain and disputed”. But American sources are pretty sure: they date it to 1951, when it first showed up in US student slang, perhaps changing an earlier slang word ‘nert’, which itself altered the expression ‘nut’ to refer to a stupid or crazy person.

Where did kids dream up the word ‘nerd’? It seems to have come from Nerd, a fictional animal in the children’s story If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by the madly popular children’s writer Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel). It occurs in his verse: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Katroo And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, A Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker too!”

Dr Seuss, who did his own illustrations, depicts the Nerd as a tiny, unkempt, vaguely human-looking creature with a large head and a strange expression. The word promptly started to be applied on American college campuses. A year later, Newsweek reported on the word’s popularity on campus: “… someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” Some suggest that collegians actually spelt ‘drunk’ backwards to describe such an over-sober character who studiously didn’t drink or socialise (‘knurd’). Whichever version is accurate, ‘nerds’ are now here to stay.

The primary characteristics of nerds are that they know a lot about some subject, usually a highly technical one that’s little known and often non-mainstream, prefer studying over partying, and are worthless company, though highly useful when you need their expertise. They have no social graces, can be introverted, boring and dress unattractively.

But there’s a difference between a geek and a nerd, though both are knowledgeable and intelligent. A geek can talk to people, sometimes brilliantly, and rise in the world (Time magazine ran a headline in 1995 declaring ‘The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth’). A nerd, on the other hand, obsesses about one thing but is hopeless at everything else. Geeks are always techies, but knowledge of technology is not essential to be a nerd; a nerd is just extremely focused on his area of expertise, brainy but socially inept. Nerds are geeks without social skills. But you can be a ‘movie geek’ or a ‘music geek’, which makes you desirable company on the social scene for those interested in movies or music. (I’m a bit of a ‘cricket geek’ myself).

But the word ‘nerd’ is still more complimentary than two other examples of American slang with negative connotations, ‘dork’ and ‘dweeb’. No one would call themselves a ‘computer dork’, but a ‘computer nerd’ is not such a bad thing to be. In fact, experts on usage say that ‘nerd’ is popularly used to describe academic expertise in a subject, as in ‘language nerd’, or ‘chemistry nerd’, and being a nerd can be a badge of pride. It’s a word that implies that you possess a depth of knowledge in the particular area you’re obsessed about. And in the era of Artificial Intelligence, it’s not uncool to possess the real thing.

Still, labelling a kid a nerd at school, merely because they show their intellect, can be harmful. Some bright kids deliberately suppress their intellectual leanings for fear of being branded as nerds. Aside from seeking social acceptability, it’s a measure of self-protection; in many schools, ‘nerds’ are the target of bullying because of their social ineptitude and lack of popularity (and a certain amount of envy on the part of the popular jocks, whom the nerds outshine in class). Nerds, often, are too focused on their subject of interest to have the time for the activities required to be popular.

It doesn’t help that nerds are also assumed to have an unattractive physical appearance, caricatured as being physically unfit, skinny or fat from lack of exercise, having buck teeth and acne, and wearing very large glasses, braces, and pants pulled up high at the waist. The Unicode emoticon for a ‘nerd face’ released in 2015 reflects some of those stereotypes.

In the United States, racism has crept into popular understandings of nerdiness: a 2010 study published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication says that Asian Americans are perceived as most likely to be nerds. Those Indians who have watched Kunal Nayyar spouting nerdiness on The Big Bang Theory will know exactly what they mean.

(HT Media)

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