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What is a nerd?

Today on Salon.com there's an article about nerds (The Beauty of the Geek). An author called Benjamin Nugent has written a book, "American Nerd" that explores what nerdiness is, where it comes from, and the place of the nerd in American culture.

It's pure bullshit. I disagree with this stupid definition of what a nerd is, "After spending a lot of time with different subcultures that I intuitively knew were nerdy, I figured out what they all had in common: a love of rules, a love of hierarchies that were meritocratic and open to everybody, and in some cases the affectation of rationalism (whether computer programming or math). Ham radio operators kept using Morse code long after they had to, because they saw it as a purely rational form of language. That seems to me to be a common trait of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and kids on debate teams, and computer programmers."

While it's certainly true that a sub-section of the nerd herd are your math geeks and hall monitors, this misses so much as to render Mr. Nugent's expertise almost ludicrously unsound. There are many nerds who resent rules and systems, and that's a truly foolish distinction to make - and even more nerds who are as happy being absurdist and chaotic as they are "loving hierarchies". Balderdash.

No, a nerd is an unathletic smart kid with offbeat or poor social skills. It's really that simple. Doesn't matter if you're debate team or Trekkie, gamer or math geek - there are no dumb nerds, there are no jock-nerd hybrids, and there are no super-smooth popular nerds.

That doesn't mean that no nerd is fit; but if you're a competitive player on a team sport, you're not a nerd. Nerds might go out for the football team to prove a point, but they'll either be really bad at it, or if they do excel, will find a niche in society which can no longer be described as nerdy. Possible exceptions - long distance runners and martial arts; both individual sports.

There are no dumb nerds. In order to take the prestige class "nerd", you must have a minimum INT score of 12. This is known.

And there are no nerds that really smooth talkers, popular, or mainstream sociable. There may well be nerds that are funny, bright, and fun to talk to - even individually liked by lots of people; but something off-beat or downright weird about them will keep them from being one of the "popular kids". They might be good looking, might be charismatic, might be very well-regarded by parents, teachers, and peers - but everyone has an instinctive notion of whether another person is popular or not, and a nerd, no matter how well liked, will always register as "not popular". Their unpopularity may range anywhere from despised outcast to amusing odd-ball, but popular? Never.

Nerd is a social construct. Love of rules? Love of hierarchies? I'm surprised this guy is given any credibility at all. I'm sure we could all come up with a dozen counter-examples to his definition. He further implies that everyone with Aspberger's Syndrome is a nerd, and doesn't make clear that not all nerds have Aspbergers. I found this interview ridiculous and annoying.


( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2008 05:58 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't so much as say a nerd has poor social skills as much as a nerd is one who repeatedly puts intellectual pursuits ahead of social activities. A nerd is happiest reading, analysing and studying, and engages heartily in social interaction when said social interaction involves an intellectual topic. The History Channel is rife with men and women who can carry on an engaging discourse without sounding like a social reject, yet still qualify as a nerd.
May. 20th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
That's why I said offbeat or poor. There are plenty of nerds who are gregarious, charming, charismatic - but they do so in a way that's not square with "normal", that somehow puts them out of the mainstream. Some of them are just spazzes, however. Not all!
(no subject) - joemorf - May. 21st, 2008 08:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toast3r - May. 20th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toast3r - May. 20th, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toast3r - May. 20th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toast3r - May. 20th, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - arya - May. 20th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curtana - May. 20th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
I think that definition displays a particularly poor understanding of the female variety of nerd - I certainly know some male nerds who fit that definition, but practically no female ones who do.

ETA: his definition, I mean, not yours. I mostly agree with yours, though I knew a number of athletic nerds in high school. Yes, some did track and some did martial arts, some fenced and some were swimmers, but one guy I knew was on the soccer team and very stereotypically handsome - yet indubitably a nerd.

Edited at 2008-05-20 06:40 pm (UTC)
May. 20th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
but one guy I knew was on the soccer team and very stereotypically handsome - yet indubitably a nerd.

I'm dubious. Dubious, I tell you! Unless he was on the soccer team but not very good. That'd make sense.
(no subject) - curtana - May. 20th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curtana - May. 20th, 2008 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
I can't seem to connect to the article at the moment. A few of those observations seem kind of half-right to me, but in a way that misses the point even more than being completely wrong.

I think nerds like rules, not as constraints on their own behavior, but as systems they enjoy playing within and tinkering with. A rules system -- a roleplaying game, a programming language, the customs of a reenactment group -- is a challenge to see what cool things they can do within that ruleset.

Meritocratic and open? Sure. Hierarchical? Not so much. Not fixed hierarchies, anyway.
May. 20th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC)
Well, and my point is - not ALL nerds like tinkering with rules. That's a fatuous thing to ascribe to every nerd everywhere, if you're trying to develop some sort of nerd taxonomy. I definitely agree that fiddling with all the rules systems you mention are plenty nerdy...but that doesn't mean all nerds enjoy the same thing.

it's just such a weird thing to single out as being the definition of nerdiness.
May. 20th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)
That doesn't mean that no nerd is fit; but if you're a competitive player on a team sport, you're not a nerd.

I was totally going to object, until you later listed your possible exceptions :) Almost everyone I know who has martial arts as a crux of their social lives, is a giant nerd with very little social skills. Self included.

In fact, I'm fairly certain it's your excess of social skills which is the reason you don't practice aikido as much as you would otherwise.
May. 20th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
Yeah, individual sports are the sorts of physical activities that nerds gravitate to - team sports less so.

And actually, I haven't been to Aikido because of my rupture fasciia ligament. It's just not possible right now, may not ever be, hasn't been for a year now, and even if it does heal, will be as much as another year. Otherwise I'd be there, since I live close to a good dojo. It makes me very sad, and I look at the gi hanging in my closet and am depressed fairly often.
(no subject) - arya - May. 20th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - arya - May. 20th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)
I actually read the book last weekend. Found it to be ... lacking, I suppose.
May. 20th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
Did he at least make more cogent points in the book? Was it maybe just a bad interview?
(no subject) - librarygrrrl - May. 20th, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - librarygrrrl - May. 20th, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 08:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
May. 20th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
Re: But
You're not competitive in the sense that I mean. You're playing a team sport, sure - but were there tryouts? Is anyone rejected? Are you a star player, or even a key player?

I used to go play in a hobby soccer league on the corner of my old place in Philly, but that didn't mean I was a talented or even competent soccer player.
May. 20th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
Ok, is a nerd the same thing as a geek? Or have they evolved apart?
May. 20th, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
related but different. Like dogs and wolves.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - aghrivaine - May. 20th, 2008 11:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 21st, 2008 04:02 am (UTC)
I actually think nerd girls have it harder in some ways. Because the social molds for females in general are both more rigid and less practical (we get praised for being reliant on men, yet we are expected to do the majority of the nurturing), I think nerdy girls get caught on the outs. They can't fit in with "popular" girls because of their inherent nerdiness, yet they are also unknown quantities when it comes to nerd boys. Nerd boys have just enough social capacity to cope with their own sex in high school; adding the opposite sex into the mix seems to just bring out their lack of skills.

Of course, I also object to the idea that you can't play sports and be a nerd. I think that every subculture has its own form of geekery- music geeks and bibliophiles, puckheads and gear monkeys. They are extremely knowledgable on their topic of interest, and thus have the capacity for nerdiness within that topic. Erik played lacrosse in high school; he was pretty good too. He wasn't a jock though; he was definitely a nerd. However, he had amazing social grace, so he could interact with ease with other groups. Of course, this may be the hair-splitting of geek vs nerd. Symantics was always my favorite game in high school:).

And as a final note, I was a nerd-wannabe. I followed around the senior nerds when I was a sophmore, and I wanted nothing more than to be accepted y them. I thought they were the coolest people in the school, especially because they weren't "popular". Now that is nerdy.
( 39 comments — Leave a comment )


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