Sunday, June 28, 2009

A nerdy examination of nerdiness

What, exactly, is a nerd? Roger Ebert once attempted to answer that question, in his review of one of the Revenge of the Nerds flicks:
These aren't nerds. They're a bunch of interesting guys, and that's the problem with [this film].... A nerd is not a nerd because he understands computers and wears a plastic pen protector in his shirt pocket. A nerd is a nerd because he brings a special lack of elegance to life. An absence of style. An inability to notice the feelings of other people. A nerd is a nerd from the inside out, which is something the nerds who made this movie will never understand.
I must confess that I find Ebert's definition rather strange, especially his contention that the protagonists of this film couldn't be nerds because they were "a bunch of interesting guys." I've always thought nerds were the interesting guys. It was the popular kids who were the bores, who went on to boring, regular jobs, while their nerdy classmates went on to become the inventors, the rocket scientists, the CEOs, the movie stars. (If you don't believe me about that last one, go read an interview with Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck about their high school days.) I presume Ebert doesn't include in his definition a tubby, bespectacled guy who analyzes movies for a living. He doesn't because he seems to define nerds as dysfunctional human beings rather than the people you learn to respect when you grow up.

Ebert is afflicted with a condition I like to call lexicitis, which is the desire to provide precise definitions for words that defy any. The word nerd is little more than a loose collection of stereotypes, rooted in the superficial world of teen cliques and in-crowds, but applied to adults without any consistent, universally accepted meaning.

I wouldn't even call it a character type, for it can encompass many character types. Rick Moranis's mad scientist in Honey I Shrunk the Kids is nerdier than Christopher Lloyd's mad scientist in Back to the Future, but then Moranis made a career out of putting a nerdy spin on characters who might not seem nerdy if played by other actors. In Parenthood he played a perfectionistic snob, but a nerdy perfectionistic snob.

Like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, you know 'em when you see 'em. I think of nerds as social oddballs, but not all social oddballs are nerds. Nerds are often thought to be intellectuals, but not all intellectuals are nerds, and not all nerds are intellectual.

Above all, the word evokes particular images: a guy who wears glasses with a piece of tape in the middle, a guy with pens in his shirt pockets, a guy who reads comic books and plays video games and likes science fiction movies and memorizes UNIX manuals.

Nerds are traditionally pictured as male. Girls and women have been described as nerds, but nobody's sure what that means. Women nerds defy a sexual stereotype almost as much as women football players do.

Nerds are, also, usually pictured as Caucasian. Of course blacks can be nerds too (think Urkel), and in black youth culture, nerdiness blends with the idea of "acting white." As for Asians, according to Hollywood in recent years, all Asian guys are nerds (this has apparently replaced the older stereotype that they all know martial arts). And all Jewish men are nerds, except for Israelis.

The commonest explanation for the word's origin is that it came from the name of a creature in a 1950 book by Dr. Seuss. How it acquired its current sense is unknown, but by the 1960s it was being used by teenagers to describe those they considered uncool.

The twin word geek has a different history, originally referring to a performer at a carnival sideshow who bit the head off a chicken. It later evolved into a synonym for nerd, a fact that hasn't stopped people from coming up with a distinction between the two. The filmmaker John Hughes once explained it in the following way: "A geek is a guy who has everything going for him, but he's just too young. By contrast, a nerd will be a nerd all his life."

Personally, I've never heard anyone else use that definition. But I agree that the two words are not always identical. It's one of those pairs like morality and ethics that seem interchangeable but upon closer inspection turn out to have a subtle difference in connotation. Geekiness usually suggests an element of the grotesque, whereas nerdiness is something you can find endearing. The heroes of most teenage comedies are nerds, not geeks, despite what John Hughes may think.

Still, it seems like both words don't mean quite what they used to. Early in the 2000s, Comedy Central had a game show called Beat the Geeks, in which contestants would try to match their knowledge against Star Wars geeks, horror geeks, James Bond geeks, Simpsons geeks, Playboy geeks, hip-hop geeks, wrestling geeks, and so on. What was striking was how many of these so-called geeks were immersed in pop culture, something you would not associate with the geeks of old.

Nerds were once thought to make up the computer-literate population, but now that we've entered an age of iPhones, Blackberrys, webcams, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, you're considered uncool if you aren't caught up on the latest computer or Internet development. It's not surprising that I haven't heard the phrase "computer nerd" in a long time.

This is what happens when you take a term invented by adolescent boys and try to apply it to adults, most of whom have long lost their sense of what's cool and what's nerdy. The word may shed light on some of the qualities of today's culture, but let's not take it too seriously, lest we become a living example of the word in its negative sense.