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Sunday, July 8, 2007

Defining the Nerd

I was abducted by an alien last week (more on that later), and a rather surprising topic thread arose from it. What is a nerd?

I'm a little taken aback that such a question could be asked. Perhaps I'm taking things too literally, and those making the query are quite simply making the point that there is no distinction between the general population and the subtype of human known as the nerd. Or perhaps there are different regional terms for nerds, and they were quite simply unfamiliar with this particular term (hard to believe, I know). I opened up the comments section of Blogger, and prepared to type in the obvious definition, then realised I had nothing to say. In the fragment of society that I exist in, the definition would be nerd = everybody. Was this true elsewhere?

Being a nerd, I immediately turned to the internet for relevant discussion. Now, it's not at all surprising that the most definitive internet entry was found on Wikipedia. What was surprising were all the inaccuracies in the article, which surely must have been written by members of nerd society. The following sections in quotes are from Wikipedia.

"Nerd as a stereotypical, archetypal and frequently used informally as a derogatory designation, refers to somebody who passionately pursues intellectual or esoteric knowledge or pastimes rather than engaging in social life, such as participating in organized sports or other mainstream social activities."

Hmm. I don't think anyone is insulted anymore by being called a nerd. I certainly am not. And while I have spent most of my adult life in academia, I completely disagree that nerds are not social. We get together all the time to do all sorts of social things, like go to screenings of the live action Transformers movie, discuss the graphics coding of Baldur's Gate, or just engage in a good ol' RPG. As for organised sports, I would like to point out that the realm of martial arts overlaps with the realm of the nerd. There are several examples of this to be found in manga/anime, as well as games like Street Fighter. And yes, many of us have bulked up a bit as we actually try to do these things for real.

"The stereotypical nerd is intelligent but socially and physically awkward. A typical nerd will probably get an "9" for his master thesis and do one or two C-functions in his member years at the choir. Furthermore they tend to end up driving volvo station cars, having a golden retriever and a wife which they met in the basement of the choir . . . Many traits associated with the nerd stereotype, in particular an unusual penchant for accumulating highly specialized or technical knowledge, impaired social ability and/or occasionally poor motor coordination, are characteristics of Asperger syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder. The existence of the nerd concept in popular consciousness might be attributed to a tendency for certain behavioral and cognitive predispositions to covary, which at the extreme results in forms of autism. In support of this possibility, studies using a measure of autistic tendencies, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, find that occupations commonly linked to the nerd stereotype, especially fields of science and engineering, are associated with elevated AQ[15], with the highest average AQ seen among computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists. Other studies have found associations between heightened AQ and prenatal testosterone exposure[16] as well as genetic factors[17], suggesting a distinct genetic and developmental basis for traits associated with the nerd stereotype."

Excuse me? This is very masculo-centric, and most likely only applies to a subtype of a subtype, yet it is a major part of the Wikipedia entry. I think this section needs a serious overhaul by people who actually walk the walk, not by someone who thinks s/he knows what a nerd is. There were, however, some interesting nerd facts in the article, that were previously unknown to me:

"The word "nerd" first appeared in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo[1], published in 1950, where it simply names one of Seuss's many comical imaginary animals. (The narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.)

The first recorded use of the "nurd" spelling appeared in 1965, in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Bachelor[9]. Oral tradition at RPI holds that the word was coined there, spelled as "knurd" ("drunk" spelled backwards), to describe those who studied rather than partied. This usage predates a similar coinage of "knurd" by author Terry Pratchett, but has not been documented prior to the "nurd" spelling in 1965. A spelling variant "gnurd" was in wide use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by 1971 and continued at least until the mid-70's."

So after all that, I wondered if I could now come up with my own definition of "Nerd". I suppose I would apply a very broad definition to it, and say that a nerd would be anyone who thinks academics is fun and/or rewarding and actually pursues it as a pastime. I would drop the "socially inept" part of it completely. We've gone mainstream.

I'm sure there are others who feel differently. I invite your comments.


having mexican food said...

a geek used to be some clown-ish type person in the circus who would bite the head off of chickens - glad the word has a different meaning now :-D

sfgirl said...

Well described, Jen! You may wish to check out my latest post (Saturday)on the Alien Next Door and find out what this alien who abducted you last week has done...oh, no...oh, yes!