Magazine

Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?

  • 16 November 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Clockwise, from left: Richard Ayoade (Image: Talkback), Matt Smith, the stars of the Harry Potter films, David Mitchell, members of Hot Chip and Alyson Hannigan

Campaigners in Sweden are trying to force a dictionary to change its definition of "nerd". But after two decades of "reappropriation" has "nerd" - and its sister word "geek" - now completely lost its derogatory connotations?

In the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds the rousing final speech of one of the protagonists starts with the statement: "I'm a nerd."

Its plot may be cartoonish but the film reveals a certain cultural backdrop - to be a nerd was to be socially awkward, even socially inferior. Jocks, those who were good at sport, or other socially successful groups, usually ended up winning. To turn that on its head could form the basis for comedy.

Things have changed.

The Social Network in 2010 came in a very different social milieu. Now a nerd, or a "geek", can be a driven Machiavellian bent on success - Gordon Gekko in a zip-up hoodie.

Today when people think of "geeks" and "nerds" they might very well name the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg - people whose imagination and grasp of the technical made them billions.

Historic geeks are celebrated, with Alan Turing and Nikola Tesla's legacies provoking great passions. New York Times blogger and geeky statistician Nate Silver has been hailed as an unexpected star of the US presidential election after correctly predicting the outcome. "Memo to wannabe presidents: hire geeks, not pundits," advises this week's New Scientist magazine.

Even sportsmen unabashedly refer to themselves as "nerds". Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, who has just been voted "sexiest man of the year", said of the honour: "It's a little weird because I'm a nerd video game player."

Singles on dating websites define themselves in their profiles as "nerds" and "geeks" - in a positive way - and there is no end of blogs listing stars like Natalie Portman as geeks or listing "nerdy power couples" (like Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter).

A slew of comedies over the past few years have had geeks as heroes, such as Tim Bisley - the comics, video game and Star Wars-obsessive of Spaced - and Sheldon Cooper, the precocious physicist of The Big Bang Theory.

In Skyfall, Bond's gadget guru Q has evolved into a slick computer geek.

There's been a long period of "reappropriation" of the words "geek" and "nerd".

The very first depiction of a "nerd" is believed to have been a hairy, critter created by children's author-illustrator Dr Seuss.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary mentions the 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo in its etymology as the leading contender as source for the term.

"The first written reference was in 1951, which lends credence to the Dr Seuss theory," says associate editor Kory Stamper.

That year, this definition was published in Newsweek: "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd."

According to Stamper, the word nerd was "pretty much under the radar" until the late 1970s when the computer boom prompted a rise.

The Revenge of the Nerd films cemented in people's minds the image of a socially awkward, brainy group that particularly dealt with technology.

"There was a dip in its usage for a while before becoming more popular as more people started learning html and building their own websites," says Stamper. "It came back in the mid-1990s, when it was still being used disparagingly. There was a slow shift and by the 2000s, it began to register a neutral sense."

The word "geek" is older, starting out in the early 1900s to refer to a carnival performer (see box) whose only skill was the ability to bite the heads off chickens.

It's easy to argue that "nerd" and "geek", with their very different roots, retain different meanings, arguably with the former still more derogatory than the latter. And some see a transatlantic divide, with "geek" used in US and UK, but "nerd" somehow feeling less British.

Stamper argues "nerd" now denotes a depth of knowledge in a particular area, while "geek" appears to have taken on the more technical overtones that "nerd" once had.

"We have evidence of people particularly taking the word 'geek' and using it proudly to reclaim the best elements," says Stamper.

This process of reappropriation is common. Take, for example, the way many gay people have altered the meaning of the word "queer".

The classic current use of "geek" as a self-description is typically accompanied by something else - "stats geek", "physics geek", "history geek" and even "cocktail geek" all being standard usages.

Some lexicographers have been slow to reflect the new status of "nerd" and "geek".

In Sweden, an online petition to change the dictionary definition of "nerd" - a "simple-minded and laughable person" - has gathered almost 4,000 signatures.

According to reports, the Swedish Academy says it might change the definition to something more neutral in the future.

English writer Neil Gaiman - author of the Sandman comic book series, Stardust and Coraline novels - says he is fascinated by how "incredibly quickly" both words took off in the UK after the 1980s.

"I remember interviewing William Gibson - who posited a world in which people sitting in front of their computers were cool - for Time Out in the mid-to-late 1980s," says Gaiman. "Gibson described himself as the geek who couldn't play baseball. Someone at Time Out changed this to 'Greek' because they said they hadn't come across the word.

"Nerd became popular with the Revenge of the Nerds. But it was terribly prescient given what followed in the next 30 years - the people who were good at football didn't have the jobs, while the ones who weren't good at football and might have had trouble picking up girls in their teens were more than making money, they were changing the world."

Surely the apotheosis for those dubbed "geek" came with world wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee being cheered at the London 2012 opening ceremony.

And the appropriation of the word "nerd" was a "battle that got won", says Gaiman. "It's like many terms that were originally intended to offend, the team that was offended took it as its own as a badge of honour.

"It's part of a cycle, that terms of abuse are turned around - in this case it has been socially turned around."

So as more and more people become enthusiasts, traditional "nerd" and "geek" interests - Star Trek, comic books, anime, video games - are moving into the mainstream. The record for biggest US movie opening weekend is held by a movie based on comics.

But has anything been lost by this shift?

Some of those who self-identify as nerds and geeks look back nostalgically on the time their status felt rebellious, says Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People. "This didn't come until the late 1980s and 1990s with Hollywood depictions of hackers taking on nefarious government corporations. They were turning into outlaws - pallid versions of Jesse James."

The addition of women into what was traditionally a male-orientated and male-dominated sub-culture has been a significant development, says Nugent.

But the hardcore take to forums like Reddit to deride those who think they are nerds and geeks but are perceived as lacking the right credentials.

One writes: "In my mind, a nerd is someone who is passionate about (and very good at) something - be it math, Irish literature, D&D, botany, whatever. Somewhere along the line, this changed to being part of a certain culture, watching this TV show and wearing that type of clothing. And that's such a different concept. Many think it devalues the word."

With the words "geek" and "nerd" primarily self-descriptions now, says blogger and game designer JR Blackwell, there are many different interpretations.

And as Gaiman says: "Nowadays, people own their nerd-dom."