| illustration by Charles Marsh |
We’ve usually been able to spot these people instantly all of our lives. Back in school, he was the voracious reader with horn-rimmed glasses, a pocket protector, greasy parted hair and pants hiked up to his armpits, held in place by a real snappy pair of suspenders. She was the one sporting a Star Trek t-shirt with a picture of Sulu and a pair of Doc Martens. Glasses were also part of the ensemble, with lenses the size of hubcaps on a MiniCooper. They always sat on the front row, and one of them would never fail to remind the teachers at the end of class that they forgot to give the homework assignment.
As we got older, they became a little more difficult for some people to spot, particularly in the workplace. But all you really had to do was find the cubicles with the most action figures. Years ago, I knew one who became the CEO of an emerging technology company. I interviewed with him for a job, praying the whole time that he had forgotten about all those wedgies I gave him in high school. He hadn’t. Yep, old Bill Gates ain’t one to let go of a grudge.
I’m guessing most of you probably know these type of people have a name. Exactly. Nerds.
Now the definition of “nerd” as defined by Merriam-Webster is “a socially awkward person slavishly devoted to intellectual and academic pursuits,” such as publishing a dictionary. Although nobody is entirely sure about the origin of the word, most people agree that it was first coined in the Doctor Seuss book, “If I Ran the Zoo,” published back in 1950. Just a year later, the word became a synonym for a “drip” or a “square.” Now those words themselves are pretty nerdy. The word got so popular throughout the United States, it apparently decided to hop a boat to Scotland and became widespread there in less than a year. Caricatures of nerds weren’t all that flattering, and the stereotypical depiction always included glasses, braces and a healthy dose of acne. They were also portrayed as physically unfit, whether skinny or obese. On the bright side, nerds have also been characterized as super intelligent. But because of the perceived social ineptitude, the guys in particular had difficulty finding dates. And even if they did, getting to first base was almost impossible, especially if their mom was driving.
Probably the biggest misconception that people have about nerds is that they can also be referred to as geeks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nerds always zero in on a particular topic and try to gain as much knowledge as they can about it, or the skills involved in operating it. On the other hand, geeks are more collection-oriented when it comes to their subject of interest. In other words, a nerd wants to drive the Batmobile. A geek wants to own it.
Of course these days, nerds can’t always be identified by their appearance. In fact, you may be a nerd and not even know it. For instance, if you’re trying to read this column with a “Spider-Man” comic book under one arm while holding a metal detector with the other, you might possibly be a nerd. Or maybe just take a quick look around your bedroom. Are there any “Game of Thrones” books or Pokémon trading cards lying around? What about that clarinet case in the corner?
But don’t fret. Being a nerd has become pretty cool lately. The highest paid actors on television are the three stars of “The Big Bang Theory.” Each of them makes $1 million an episode. Plus Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and that Gates guy all did pretty well. So don’t skip that game of laser tag you have planned later today, and always remember that Huey Lewis song, “It’s Hip to be Square.” Feel better? Good. By the way, that book of puzzles is about to fall out of your fanny pack.