It’s hard to look at Western pop culture over the last decade and not say that nerd culture is having a moment. If you could travel back in time and tell comic book and sci-fi lovers who were being bullied in middle school that the biggest movies and TV shows in the late 2010s would involve super heroes, dragons, and nerdy kids playing D&D in a basement, they just wouldn’t believe you.
But as nerd culture has ascended and become simply pop culture, an interesting thing has happened: the meaning of the word “nerd” seems to be changing. As a word nerd, this fascinates and thrills me. Let’s dissect this a little bit.
The Evolution of the Word “Nerd”
First off, the word “nerd” used to be roughly synonymous with the similar words “dweeb,” “geek,” and “dork.” Here are some dictionary definitions for those four words:
- nerd: a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious
- geek: an unfashionable or socially inept person
- dweeb: a boring, studious, or socially inept person
- dork: a dull, slow-witted, or socially inept person
Isn’t that fascinating? These four words, in common parlance, used to be roughly synonymous, and all used to refer predominantly to someone being boring, unattractive, and socially inept. They all used to have definite negative connotations. Meaning, it used to be a personal insult to be called any of these words.
Now, call it a decade into the pop culture nerd revolution, and here are some definitions for the word “nerd” from The Urban Dictionary:
- an individual who enjoys learning and does not adhere to social norms
- someone who enjoys learning and obtaining new information in general for its own sake
Big difference, right? Gone are the negative social connotations. Even saying that nerds “[do] not adhere to social norms” isn’t meant as an insult the way that it used to be. We live in an age where not adhering to social norms is seen as a sign of confidence and purpose.
Here’s something else fascinating. Urban Dictionary keeps a graph on each entry in their database and how often it is accessed. Here’s the graph for their entry on the word “nerd”:
What this says is that, at least among users of Urban Dictionary, people are less and less interested in the word. This would seem to indicate that it’s simply been incorporated into everyday life to such a degree that it isn’t noticed anymore. There’s very little culture left that is specifically “nerd culture” in the sense that it once was. The vast majority of it is simply popular culture.
The Cultural Swing
So back to the question at hand – what is a nerd? I genuinely think we’re in the early stages of a period in our cultural history where there’s no such thing. Sure, there will always be people who have extremely specific likes and areas of expertise. But if those things are accepted and even celebrated on a large scale, then at minimum we’re talking about an era where being a nerd is a neutral thing, if not a good thing.
So rejoice, nerds! The idea of us may be the coolest thing in the world, or the most normal, or it may cease to exist altogether and be completely subsumed. Either way, it is an exceptional time to be a nerd!
Sincerely, The Prodigal Nerd