Re-Definition: Nerd Isn’t a Person, It’s a Spectrum Re-Definition: Nerd Isn’t a Person, It’s a Spectrum
OMAR HOLMON, aka Noah Webster’s Ghostwriter BEFORE WE CAN
get into this real rap raw nerd essays and content, it’s important to understand what we as authors mean when we refer to the term nerd
. How we define the word may be different than how the reader defines it. So allow me to get my TED Talk monologue on to break the definition of the word nerd
down by how it has come to be defined in dictionaries. *takes off my regular square-framed glasses and puts on my public-speaking PowerPoint presentation tortoiseshell-framed glasses*
The online Merriam-Webster
dictionary defines a nerd as an “unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially
: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Dictionary.com
defines a nerd as “1. a person considered to be socially awkward, boring, unstylish, etc.; 2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd
As words evolve, they go through semantic change or, more fittingly, semantic progression. Semantic progression occurs when the modern meaning of a word is entirely different from its original meaning. Watch the breakdown: dope
, as a noun, used to just refer to a “stupid” person (1850s); later on in time it became a reference to drugs (1880–1900s), but as an adjective it can refer to something as good or great (1980s). You can think of countless other words that you’ve seen evolve via idioms and slang, which varies across cultures and ethnicities. One word that hasn’t officially (as of me writing this in 2020) evolved in the dictionary is the term nerd
Now, you may be reading this and thinking, “Where’s this goin’? Who gives a fuck? Why did he switch glasses when he was already wearing glasses?” Well, if you’re reading this book (that clearly says Black Nerd Problems
on it) or just “glimpsing through it,” *Jeff Foxworthy voice* youuuuu
might be a redneck nerd. Regardless, hear me out and watch how I flip this shit.
The only saving grace between both online dictionaries’ descriptions is their second definitions for the term: “one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits” and “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby.” Growing up in the 2000s from my teen to college years, I came to understand the term and had the term broken down to me as “a person that knows a little bit about a lot of things,” whereas a geek knows a lot about one specific thing. For me, and I want to say for a lot us that identify as nerds, this is a commonplace interpretation of the word, but as far as I know, I haven’t ever seen that reflected on paper regarding the word in an “official” definition.
I stated all that to say this: it’s been a long time since the term nerd
came in the context of a jock vs. an academic, or the popular high school quarterback pushing a scrawny kid into a locker, or the “mean girls” knocking books out of someone’s hands. Now in 2020, it ain’t really the Revenge of the Nerds
movie setting for the context of the word—I’m hard-pressed to say if it ever was… and thank god ’cause even in that movie about underdog “nerds” trying to get their revenge, it’s full of misogyny and racial stereotypes. Speaking of stereotypes, media representation gotta be factored in the description for a nerd as well, right? A nerd is usually a male (which is usually sexist), typically white (which is typically racist), scrawny or fat (but in the derogatory fatphobic way), that’s (lest we forget) into some obscure hobby/thing no one else cares about. [Sidebar: If you’re reading this and wanting to say Steve Urkel from Family Matters
as a breaking of the mold by being the first mainstream Black nerd, I question why Urkel, who debuted in 1989, gets that credit and not Dwayne Wayne from A Different World
, who was a fucking mathematician and debuted two years before Urkel. Dwayne Wayne and Steve Urkel were both nerds, the only difference was Urkel played heavily on the exaggerated stereotypes of a nerd. So, is a nerd only recognized as a nerd when it comes with a full package of stereotypes? Never mind that the nerdy character Roger “Raj” Thomas from What’s Happening!!
debuted in 1976. Wouldn’t he be both their OG? But I digress…]
Okay, so we got the origin/etymology of nerd
down, right? Boom. Now dead all that. With the way the term has evolved and how it’s been incorporated in mainstream media, nerd
is much more than a singular person, it’s a spectrum. Nerd
has evolved more so into being a fan of a genre. That genre doesn’t have to just be comic books, movies. Sneakerheads are fans of sneakers and know them in explicit detail. They could be considered nerds. Hip-hop heads who know their entire history of the music genre can be considered nerds. Academic nerds. Cooking-show nerds. Sports fans are mos def nerds by being able to recount a player’s performance statistics like an RPG character. The list goes on. If you enjoy something, anything you want, if it excites you and you want other people to know of it and enjoy it, then you’re a fan of it, which also means you’re a fucking nerd for it. That sounds beautiful and inclusive on paper, doesn’t it? Sounds great on paper… Here’s the problem. To be a nerd means being part of a subculture. A cultural group or collective within a much larger culture that doesn’t adhere to the status quo, beliefs, or interests of the larger culture. If you’re a Black or POC nerd, then you’re in a subculture within a subculture (Inception
shit). The problem is being a part of this subculture means you’re part of a minority, which then becomes attached to the identity of being a nerd.
So, when nerd shit starts becoming trendy, a divide occurs, with those nerds now being in an era where this thing only a few loved becomes loved by even more folks. This hobby that was part of the minority is now enjoyed by the majority. So, what happens when what you fan out for isn’t the obscure cool thing only a few know about anymore? It’s like having a favorite band or artist that was low-key for a long time suddenly blow up with a hit single. Its fan base widens and now they’ve got a larger reach. There’s that feeling of having been there riding for them before they sold out, as the cliché goes. As if everyone enjoying or having access to them now somehow dilutes the enjoyment for those there from the beginning. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Watch the breakdown: We get big-budget superhero movies yearly now. They’ve become the new Spaghetti Westerns. These superhero movies bring more folks to comic books, comic books become more common reading material and are even seen as a more mainstream-adjacent hobby and not seen as “just for kids.” Nerds that fucked with comics when it wasn’t associated with cool or trendy then feel like “It wasn’t accepted like that when I was coming up. Now that it is, how do I fit in?” Therein lies the problem.
Individually, that nerd is no longer part of a small underdog group; they become part of a larger group that likes comic books now. It’s like going from the Resistance to joining the Empire. There’s this fear of losing that cool subculture-minority identity that they’ve come to identify themselves by. So, in order to hold on to identity, you see folks using all the knowledge they’ve acquired as a litmus test for others to see who was there from the beginning like them or knows as much as them. Now when someone comes into this group liking comics but doesn’t know Professor X’s Social Security number stated in a back issue from thirty years ago, then they’re “not a true fan” or “not a real nerd” or, if they’re a woman, a “fake geek girl.” All this from a fear of a loss of identity. See how fear is the path to the dark side? Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering gatekeeping. Nerds gatekeeping other nerds to see if they’re “nerdy” enough for the nerdy club looks like Anakin Skywalker cuttin’ down them Jedi younglings. You’re hurtin’ the cause instead of helping it, fam.
If the definition of nerd
needs to go through semantic progression and the term nerd
has evolved into a spectrum instead of just an individual, then the individuals that adhere to this spectrum must become more malleable and welcoming to all portions of said spectrum in order to make the definition true. I don’t think nerd
as a subculture is a thing of the past or a Force ghost now. The progression of nerd
as a subculture shouldn’t be feared, especially when nerd
as a spectrum contains various multitudes and hues. I mean, think of the word nerd
like the Pokémon Pikachu: we’ve gained so much experience over the years, it’s time for that fucker to evolve into a Raichu. However, if due to the fear of a loss of identity folks keep gatekeeping the term as if it’s a title to be earned instead of a realization one comes to across a spectrum of genres, then the definition of nerd
will remain as it has been over the years, a Pikachu. Yeah, it’s cute, convenient, and comfortable, but with what we know now and all this experience, the definition of the word could take that next step and evolve into so much more… like motherfucking Raichu or a hue in a vast nerdy mutherfucking spectrum.