Apparently there wasn’t enough actual news to go around last week, because social media lit up when a surly (or unfunny, depending on whom you ask) Alex Trebek teased a Jeopardy! contestant for her love of nerdcore rap, a subgenre whose lyrics and MCs are tailored to the interests of supposed “nerds.” After she described the music — “It's people who identify as nerdy rapping about the things they love; video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners” — he wondered aloud if it would be appropriate shorthand to call them “losers.” This inane piece of game show banter sparked a mini-controversy about Trebek being mean to his contestants or overly harsh to a derided micro-genre. But it fed into a much bigger linguistic problem that no one seems to be talking about: the word “nerd” has become completely meaningless.
Let’s take a moment to step back from this trivial non-story to look at how the word “nerd” has grown from an insult to a badge of honor, and now, has graduated — like the most successful bits of internet-fueled ephemera — to become ubiquitous to the point that no one knows exactly what they're saying when they say it anymore. So why say it at all?
In years past, the linguistic Borg mind of pop culture (the internet/you and me) subconsciously decided to fully obliterate the word “literally.” Literally either means what it used to mean, but now it means the opposite of the old meaning, canceling itself out. If someone uses “literally” today, there’s a high chance what follows is complete nonsense. Literally is a bit more tricksy because it’s an adverb and comes up naturally in conversation all the time, especially when internet parlance favors emphasis.
Nerd, however, is a label. More and more it's a self-applied label. The word dates back as a neologism from Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran The Zoo. From there, nerd began popping up in journalism, in fiction and colloquially to represent a square or bookish person. Then the history gets a little murky as different spellings (“nurd”) and apocryphal rumors (“knurd” is drunk backwards) cropped up. But it was really the Revenge of the Nerds franchise of films in the ‘80s that solidified the criteria of nerdiness.
Nerd, of course, came to represent the archetypal suburban loser. The guy or girl who couldn’t get laid, was socially inept, but intellectual superior. From a decent background. Usually very white (or Asian). The nerd is supposedly into sci-fi, fantasy and gaming, and has a heart of gold. It was a pejorative term lodged from the dominant culture. As Silicon Valley and tech culture became mainstreamed in the ‘90s, we saw nerd flip to a positive stereotype, probably due in most part to the amount of wealth it turned out some of these nerds could amass in the computer age. But nerd was still a clumsy stereotype, no matter if the connotation was good or bad.
In this century, nerd has devolved into a marketing term or a catch-all for rejecting bro/sports culture. Multi-millionaire and self-proclaimed nerd king Chris Hardwick owns the Nerdist network, where all things nerd (basically all pop culture) is dissected. CBS's The Big Bang Theory has been a mainstream success for years and introduced the world to the worst catchphrase of all time, “Bazinga!” by mining cheap and shitty nerd jokes. Read comics? You’re a nerd. Like music? Nerd. Television? Nerd. Pop-culture? Nerd. Any area of expertise or are a passionate hobbyist of any sort? Nerd. Know anything about anything? Nerd. Read books? Nerd. Porn star? Nerd. Breathe? Nerd.
So basically, if you like things, you're a nerd now. I don’t buy it. It’s like the broken, completely useless term “Millennial.” At a certain point, the number of people you’re trying to characterize is so large that there’s no way it’s accurate. And we went through this already about six or seven years ago when people — for the most part — stopped hurling “hipster” as a pejorative, probably because by that point, literally everyone had at least a drop of hipster in them, whatever it had come to mean by then.
Then there's the ugly side of modern “nerd culture,” which is like the opposite of the long-defunct characterization of a nerd as polite, decent and harmless. Gamergate, for instance, is proof that self-proclaimed “nerds,” who apply the label to come off as mild mannered, are just as capable of the most craven, vicious and bullish behavior as your average MRA bro, no matter their interests. Or look at the flame wars on Marvel v. DC threads. Or play Counterstrike with a bunch of nerds and watch the F and N bombs fly. The worst parts of nerd culture seems to have folded into the worst parts of bro culture, strangely enough.
In a culture where everyone’s a nerd, no one is a nerd. Nerd culture isn’t civil, because there is no such thing as nerd culture. It’s like another Seussian story, The Sneetches. If you start chasing labels or buy into aspirational stereotypes, you’re kinda fucked no matter which way you play it.
Nearing the conclusion of an exceptionally batshit crazy year for America, it’s crucial to remember there are a few things we actually can control, like how we use and deform the English language. Let’s update the language to match the reality. So next time you’re thinking of using the word nerd, take a second.
There’s probably a better word than that for the thing you mean.