Stop using the “N” Word
Editor’s note: In no way are we equating being called a nerd with being discriminated against for race, gender, or sexual orientation.
We have all said it at one point or another in our lives, probably in a combination like comic nerd, movie nerd, or gaming nerd. Perhaps we referred to someone we know, or even someone on the street as a nerd. “Oh, those people who go to / participate in / enjoy NOUN are nerds.” Hell, I’m guilty of it myself, both when being self-referential or referring to another person.
But here’s what we seem to be forgetting: it’s an insult. As a matter of fact it is nothing but an insult, and has never been removed from that usage. It isn’t derived from some longer Latin word that has a dual meaning; it’s just a way to put something down.
So why has it recently become a somewhat desirable label? Why do people suddenly want to identify as a nerd, like it’s a badge of honor? Why are television shows like Big Bang Theory and King of the Nerds all the rage, specifically among people who typically don’t self-identify nor fit the stereotype?
Marketing. But we will get to that point. First, to understand why I propose we stop using the word as a style and should recognize it as an insult, we need to know what the word actually means.
1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.
2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.
The word has two awkwardly contradictory definitions. The first is the more purely insulting and pejorative of the two. Last time I checked, calling someone stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive is a pretty big insult, and calling them all of those things at once is four times as bad. You wouldn’t say, “That’s the guy who fixed my PC the last time it broke, he’s a computer idiot,” but calling someone a computer nerd is virtually the same thing. This definition is most often assigned to the stereotype of the basement dwelling, shut in type. People who LARP and play D&D (first and second editions mind you, not those wannabes playing third ed.). This is the definition for people who just did not fit in with the rest of the group, outcast because of physical, mental, or social differences, and occasionally, someone whose social difficulty may stem from a developmental or social disorder.
The second definition is a bit more confusing. It opens by defining the person as intelligent, somewhat contradictory to the first definition, but then it defines the subject as obsessive with something nonsocial, such as computers. I don’t know about you but I find this definition to be a bit outmoded, as a great deal of our modern social interactions take place on computers. Games are social, chat and IM are social, SOCIAL media is social. Hell, we raised over two grand for a charity that uses games to enrich the social lives of disabled folks. If you draw a mental picture of this person based on the definition, you may wind up with a character from The Revenge of the Nerds films, someone sort of idiot savant, or someone who is simply very innocent and takes things like the quality of people and interactions at face value.
So let’s try to understand where the word comes from:
1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert “stupid or crazy person,” itself an alteration of nut. The word turns up in a Dr. Seuss book from 1950 (“If I Ran the Zoo”), which may have contributed to its rise.
So aside from the fact that one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors popularized the word, from this entry we can see that it is clearly a slang term derived from another insulting slang term, nut. Calling someone a nut is not a nice thing. It is supposed to mean that person is mentally challenged, crazy, or suffering from some other ailment of the mind.
So what happened? When did this word start transitioning from being a put down to a self-imposed label and wanted descriptor. When did “nerd culture” make its rise?
Hold on a sec; I should probably fill you in on where I’m personally coming from. I have never considered myself a true nerd, and honestly always strived, if anything, to be “cool” in a more traditional sense. I did not like the things that I liked (or still like) because it was expected of me, or in order to maintain a specific title or social rank; I like the things I like because I like them. I’ve been labeled a nerd by others, and that label wasn’t a compliment. I was not knighted Sir Fred of Nerd, it was almost always a way to insult me or to separate me from “normal.” It was a scarlet letter.
I’m not a historian anymore than I’m a word etymologist. Outside of this podcast and website, I work for an advertising agency as an interactive producer. I joke about it sometimes, but to take a cynics view on this, I am a cog in the propaganda machine. I try to get you to by products by convincing you there is something greater than the sum of the product’s parts; that you need it, or that you will be left out if you don’t have it. In that regard, I do have some authority outside of the empirical observations to speak on being manipulative.
Nerd has been turned into a consumerist sub-culture, a psychographic character, used in advertising pitch sessions to identify a possible market. One only needs to look at how a nerd is no longer defined by quirks of character, but by the products he or she consumes, to understand you are a “nerd” to a marketer. You are a comic book nerd because you buy comics, or a movie nerd because you drop $15 at a theater instead of torrenting your media. And now, we aren’t just accepting this label, we’re embracing it.
In recent history, and since modern day media and advertising became monoliths, you can see a trend of traditionally negative slang terms being turned on their heads and accepted as a descriptor by the very people that have been getting put down. Terms like ghetto, redneck, tree-hugger, and some other more racially charged descriptors, aren’t just used as insults to disparage the group they are targeted at, but by that very group as an ubiquitous descriptor. If you think that Ghetto-Fabulous is any different than Comic Nerd, you are sadly mistaken. As the LGTB community is granted more and more basic civil rights, watch as their newly reclaimed freedoms and disposable incomes are targeted by marketers. Hell, the smart ones are already doing it, just watch Bravo for an hour.
Comiccon is a great example of the marketing and manipulation of nerd culture. Twenty years ago, Comiccon, and other conventions of its type, were literally just that: a convention for comic enthusiasts to buy, sell, and trade comics, to meet the authors and artists, and talk comics with fellow comic fans. Sure, sales were always a part of it, but it was pretty genuine sales effort by people in the industry, store owners, and fans.
As time went on and marketers started realizing people with disposable incomes attended these shows and suddenly “nerd” was all the rage. The convention started to grow in size. Movies, games of all types, car companies, and sodas all started paying for presence, if not booth space. At the same time, the enhancements to the marketing of the event started to draw in new people. Now you have movie buffs who were there to be the first to blog about movie teasers and journalists from major news outlets just reporting on the con transforming a whole city. Some of the very bullies from your past were there because it was the cool place to be. Cool to be a nerd.
In the midst all that, you know what started comprising less and less of the convention? Comic books. The events became watered down and the true enthusiasts lost something that was special to them, an event they had a true affinity with. Like Limp Bizkit playing Woodstock, it’s a shitty situation.
But marketers are not to blame in the end. Blaming someone from the ad world for trying to sell you something is like yelling at water for being wet. It is within the nature of the beast to do this and it’s job is basically done. The term nerd, as a reclaimed word, is like a boulder that got pushed down a hill. Yea the media gave that boulder its initial push, and maybe those who were targeted could have stopped it before it gained too much momentum through their actions (nothing speaks like a wallet), but they didn’t. Now that boulder is heading down the hill full steam and trying to stop it is just not possible until it finally just comes to rest on its own.
It is my contention that this advertiser backed reappropriationing of nerd, and perhaps a great many other terms, is disingenuous and actually does a great deal of damage to the community. In theory, taking back a word is supposed to remove its power, to decriminalize it, and take it away from the arsenal of those would would use it for ill. What it often times actually does is trivializes the group that has now accepted it, stereotyping them to a specific character. If you ask someone to describe someone who is a nerd, what kind of mental picture will it draw? I would wager that most people will describe a character straight out of one of the Revenge of the Nerds movies, or perhaps even worse, The Big Bang Theory (for a great read on why this is a show that disrespects the so called nerd culture, check out this essay). They would most likely base the description on physical attributes, mannerisms, and tendencies in a general fashion, and adhere to the stereotypes.
I’m not denying the existence of a nerd subculture, nor would I deny that I’m a card-carrying member. I play Magic and have a pretty deep collection of cards, I wear graphic tees all the time, and I sometimes listen to nerdcore (a somewhat tragic and self limiting title for a genre). But I am not defined by this title nor do I like being stereotyped. For all the things under the marketing umbrella of “nerd,” there is a glut of crap I don’t care for. I hate a great many things prominent within the gaming community such as the juvenile behavior on game chat and the rampant feeling of self-entitlement. I have a great disdain for Utilikilts. I do not like anime for the sake of it being anime, as most of it is unwatchable garbage. And I’m sure they’re okay people, but by and large I do not care for Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. Most of the stuff they make, like The Guild, just further perpetuates the stereotype. Not to mention it’s basically a generic sitcom where mean people do mean things to each other. Just like most everyone, I don’t perfectly fit any mold, even that of “nerd.”
So yeah, here’s my conclusion: you should never allow yourself to be stereotyped, even passively. Even if you fit it to a T, you are still an individual person. It may seem like a very casual or passive indifference to allow the word to be changed, but complacency and indifference can often times strengthen the problem. Without push-back the word will continue onwards as it has been, as a method to generalize and marginalize you. A few years down the line, you may be asking yourself, was it really better to allow the term to be adapted to represent us, or should we have recognized it as an insult in the first place and said no?