The word "nerd"

Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 12:39 GMT
In the topic "Language and thought" (, I wrote:

(BTW, I wonder if American English is the only language that has a disparaging word for a smart person. If that were true, what would it say about American culture?)
Julian replied:
I doubt that AmE is the only language that has disparaging terms for smart people. But it's sad, innit?

In school we had all sorts of disparaging (or at the very least, unkind) terms for our more studious classmates: nerd, geek, dweeb, brainiac, herbert, egghead, bookworm, etc. While the popular kids in school were the jocks and cheerleaders who spent a whole lot of time partying and a lot less time studying. It certainly doesn't help matters when our modern day heroes are 18 year-old sports figures plucked straight out of high school and signed to five year contracts worth $61 million; and pretty pop singers with hit reality shows who find programming a VCR much too taxing for their pretty little minds. Whenever I substitute teach at high schools, I'm always shocked at what these kids know and don't know.
Xatufan replied:
My friends call me nerd all the time. This word exists in Spanish, it was taken from English. Yes Tom, some languages adopt different ways of thinking when they adopt new words like nerd.
CalifJim replied:
AmEng is probably not the only one, but the U.S. is undoubtedly the most anti-intellectual country in the world. (The typical American revels in his ignorance.)
mjd replied:
I wouldn't say "nerd" is a word for a smart person. There is more to being a nerd than just being smart. One who is labeled a nerd generally lacks social skills and appears awkward, be it the way they dress or look.
Mi5 Mick replied:
As mjd says, "nerd" doesn't mean smart, although smartness is often a side effect of nerdiness. "Geek" is closer to smart but can have a positive connotation; "nerd" is more related to social inaptitude. The stereotypical images for nerds are oversized glasses with padding for the nose, pens in the shirt pocket, unfashionable clothing, and mannerisms of low self-worth.

Maybe the difference between geek and nerd has hazed over somewhat these days but being a nerd in the early days was ultimate humiliation.

The movie "Revenge of the Nerds" used mostly intelligent characters but there were dumb nerds too! 'Booger' was hapless with women, grubby and dumb:

and on the far right:

Damian replied:
mjd and Mick are right when they says that a nerd is someone who is so devoted to his (or her but is usually a male!) activity that they lack the ability to socially interact. However expert the nerd is in whatever sphere of interest it is not considered cool to be afflicted with nerdiness (or geekiness). Here in the UK another term is used to describe someone so wrapped up in his nerdy activity that he lacks this coolness .... anorak. Maybe it's because they wear anoraks to brave the elements as they stand on railway platforms spotting trains or sloshing through marshes to look at rare birds or whatever. Hey!.... maybe we're wordy nerds here in Antimoon?

In a way it's sad really. Now it's uncool......I suppose years ago it was just considered eccentric, but what's the difference?

Basically, it's true....calling someone a nerd or a geek is not meant to be a compliment however knowledgeable the nerd or geek or anorak is.
Tom   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 12:56 GMT
If you know an equivalent of "nerd" in a language other than English, please post it here.

So far, Xatufan has said that the word exists in Spanish, but was borrowed from English.

Essentially, what seems to have happened was that American English lent Spanish a "helping hand" by giving it a handy insult with which Spanish speakers can ridicule smart (if socially inept) people and make them feel bad.

Now that Spanish speakers have learned the word "nerd", they have also learned that they can belittle and harass people who are smarter than them, haven't they?

Is American culture infecting other cultures with its anti-intellectual attitude?
Mi5 Mick   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 14:07 GMT
"Is American culture infecting other cultures with its anti-intellectual attitude?"
As far as I know it has always been a general trait of all cultures, at least Western ones and it's no different here in Australia. Here, we call it the "tall poppy syndrome", an expression the Americans have borrowed from us.

As for "nerd", in French it's "ringard(e)" which has most of the nerdy connotations or you could call somone "vieux jeu" in some situations.
Xatufan   Tuesday, July 20, 2004, 20:47 GMT
The word "empollón" exists, but it's hardly ever heard (I've only heard it once or twice in my life), or at least it's rare only here in Latin America, because people from here use a lot the word "nerd".

According to my dictionary, "empollón" means: "Estudiante que prepara mucho sus lecciones" (student who prepares a lot for his lessons).
As you can see, being "empollón" is a good thing, cuz the word doesn't have the same derogatory sense that "nerd" has.
Ryan   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 05:53 GMT
The Japanese word for nerd is "otaku." As there is no stigma with being a good student and studying hard in Japan, the word is used more for people who have no social lives at all and stay in their houses do things like play computer games and watch hours of anime.

Western anime enthusiasts call themselves "otaku" as a badge of honor and a kind of code word for what they enjoy spending their time doing. But in Japan, the word still has quite a negative connotation and nobody would ever refer to himself that way.
Damian   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 06:07 GMT
Unfortunately, in the UK being considered a "nerd" while in school is sufficient cause to be mercilessly bullied...especially among lads. I should know full well...I had first hand experience. It's a reflection on the school culture among enthusiasm or ability in your school wok and you are an immediate target. My physical size and nature greatly exacerbated the problem. But hey ho!

The nerdy problem does not seem to affect girls in the same way with the result that girls considerably outperform boys in school. They can work assiduously without being penalised anything like to the same extent as are boys. In addition, there is the growing anti-male culture in society to contend with as well but that's a different story.
Damian   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 06:09 GMT
For "wok" read "work".....Chinese cooking is another topic.
Tom   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 11:46 GMT
Mi5 Mick,
"Tall poppy syndrome"... that's an interesting phrase. We have a similar one in Poland -- "Polskie piekielko" (Polish hell). It's reassuring to learn that Poles are not the only nation fond of cutting down those who are superior.
Tom   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 11:49 GMT

Thank you for mentioning "otaku". Indeed, it looks like it's a pretty close equivalent of "nerd".
I've found the following discussion of the word:

The word is borrowed into English from Japanese and is derived from the Japanese o (honorific) + taku (house, home). It was used in the 1980s as a second person singular pronoun among hobbyist photographers. As it gained familiarity, the word was soon used by others to refer to hobbyist photographers. Since the photographers were seen as socially unskillful, reclusive, and obsessed with their hobby, otaku picked up those negative connotations and eventually was used to refer to any reclusive, obsessive hobbyist. A common stereotype is the young male otaku who lives at home without a job, has few social contacts outside of his otaku friends, and may even be bordering on a dangerous stalker. Besides anime otaku (who sometimes enjoy many days of exessive anime watching with no rest) and manga otaku, Japanese culture has many other varieties, such as pasocon otaku (personal computer geeks), geimu otaku (playing video games) and otaku that are extreme fans of idols, heavily promoted singing girls. Otaku has stronger negative connotations in Japanese than it does in English, although it can be used either positively or negatively in either language.
Juan   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 11:59 GMT
Tom wrote:
<<Essentially, what seems to have happened was that American English lent Spanish a "helping hand" by giving it a handy insult with which Spanish speakers can ridicule smart (if socially inept) people and make them feel bad.

Now that Spanish speakers have learned the word "nerd", they have also learned that they can belittle and harass people who are smarter than them, haven't they? >>

In my culture, studious, dedicated, motivated, ambitious and high achieving students receive nothing but praise. Lazy, disruptive, uncooperative, selfish, good for nothing morons are look down upon and thrown out of class if they misbehaved. Bad behaviour was not tolerated in our “schooling” culture. It’s the total of the States I guess. Similar but not as extreme as the Japanese one.

It's sad that that sort of behaviour is now being mimicked in Ecuador.
Jordi   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 13:04 GMT
Both "empollón" as a noun and "empollar" as a verb are widely used in European Spanish. "Empollón" would be a "swot" in English. Feminine would be "empollona". Is "swot" still widely used or would say "nerd" to a "swot"? Nobody in Spain would know what a "nerd" is. Two final consonants would be too difficult to pronounce for a Spaniard anyway.
Jeff   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 15:16 GMT
WHat's a swot?
it's like a nerd?
Jordi   Wednesday, July 21, 2004, 15:41 GMT
A swot is a student who works extremely hard and who takes little interest in other things apart from his or her studies; used showing disapproval. EG I was looked on as a swot. (Collins Cobuild Dictionary)
Would you say that this also defines a nerd?