Homo Nerdus

3 min read
”Nerds are the ones who don’t go to the party so they can stay home and do homework; geeks bring their homework to the party.”
—David Anderegg, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (2007)

Is the word nerd an insult or not? Until recently, there was no doubt; in fact, most dictionaries call nerd an offensive term, used to insult a person’s appearance, hygiene, or social skills. That sense of the term has been around since at least the early 1950s. The 28 October 1951 issue of Newsweek tells us that ”in Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, ­regrettably, a nerd.” The word nerd also appears in the 1950 Dr. Seuss story If I Ran the Zoo , but he was referring to a ­fictional animal, not a socially inept person.

Now, however, most reference guides also include a second definition for nerd that’s practically a compliment. For example, Encarta defines a nerd as a ”single-minded enthusiast: somebody who is considered to be excessively interested in a subject or activity that is regarded as too technical or scientific.” The phrases ”excessively interested” and ”too technical or scientific” still give the definition an odor of insult, but that bit about being a ”single-minded enthusiast” doesn’t sound bad at all. Wikipedia’s ­definition is similarly ambiguous: ”a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities.”

Some folks are taking the positive aspects of the word’s definitions and running with them. That is, people are enthusiastically embracing their inner (and outer) nerd. For example, the online merchandiser Cafe Press has a Geek and Nerd Gifts section where you can buy T-shirts and other items with slogans like ”Talk Nerdy to Me,” ”Nerd Girl,” and ”I [Heart] My Nerd.” There’s even a Nerd Pride Day (also called Geek Pride Day), which is celebrated on 25 May, the day the first Star Wars movie was released, in 1977.

All this pro-nerd feeling is spilling over into the language, too, with nerd-related coinages popping up like pocket protectors at a comic-book convention. For example, the population of nerds taken as a whole is called nerdom , and a person’s nerdy traits and characteristics represent their nerdity . The latter term is used often by the psychologist David Anderegg in his engaging book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them [Tarcher, 2007]. The whole nerd-is-cool meme is often summarized in the formerly oxymoronic phrase nerd chic .

Any long and nerd-oriented activity is known as a nerdathon , and if that activity happens to be a computer game or a LAN party (a gathering where people bring their own computers, connect them together into a local area network, and then play games against one another), it’s called a nerdstorm .

As yet another example of the digital DIY movement I talked about in my column last June, nerds are embracing crafts of various kinds. For example, some nerds are baking cakes in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog or an Xbox 360 console. These are known as gamecakes , and the people who bake them are gamecakers . The desserts are examples of a larger genre called nerdcraft , and the people who engage in such activities are called nerdcrafters .

On the music front, there are artists who specialize in a form of rap music with lyrics relating to computers, technology, and engineering (I am not making this up), a genre known as nerdcore (from its original association with the hardâ''core music genre), though many people prefer the term geeksta (a play on gangsta ).

Nerds are even starting to congregate in the same areas (outside of Silicon Valley, that is), a trend first recognized by the urban analyst Joel Kotkin. He uses the term nerdistan to refer to any upscale and largely self-contained suburb or town with a sizable population of high-tech workers employed in nearby office parks that are dominated by high-tech industries. Those employees with vested stock options in successful tech start-ups are known as millionerds or, if they started the company, entreprenerds .

All these nerdologisms can’t hide the fact that, for nongeeks, the word nerd is still something of an insult (more so than the now almost neutral term geek but less so than the truly insulting terms dork and dweeb ). The difference is that now the nerds simply shrug their shoulders, push up their glasses, and go back to whatever they were obsessing about. They’re proud of their nerdhood , and they know that living nerdily is the best revenge.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions