It was hard to miss the weekend hype about Comic-Con, the massive sci-fi and comic book convention. And “Inception” is still conjuring up all sorts of brainy talk: “what does inception actually mean?” (Here’s the answer.) “What do you call someone who wakes up in their dreams?” (Find out here.)
Which brings us to nerd and geek. Comic-Con and “Inception” are exemplars of nerd/geek culture ruling the mainstream. Many people don’t realize that these words were intense badges of shame until extremely recently. Start up the etymological time machine . . .
“Nerd” first appears in a 1950 Dr. Seuss book, “If I Ran the Zoo.” The Nerd is drawn as a comically angry humanoid, with the following caption: “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!” The journey of nerd from Seuss to common slang meaning “square, a fool, or a dud” is mysterious, but one possible ancestor is nert, an obscure 1940s slang term meaning “stupid or crazy person.”
It’s also unclear exactly how nerd acquired the specific sense of “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit.” Such as, for example, building a personal computer in your garage and becoming a billionaire.
The rumors about geek are true: one of its oldest meanings is in fact “a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.” The word probably derives from the Scottish and Germanic geck, a “fool” as well as a verb “to mock, or cheat.” This charming word was popularized in the 1947 film “Nightmare Alley.” Geek gets swept up on a wave of post-World War II slang including gearhead, “a person who is extremely interested and knowledgeable about computers, electronics, technology, and gadgets.” And now you are reading these very words on a device that was probably invented by a geeky, nerdy gearhead.
Do you think these words are derogatory? Would you call yourself one? Should we come up with a term with less baggage?