Is It Cool, or Uncool, To Be a Nerd?

PostedFriday, September 8, 2017 at 7:11 AM

I am known for being pretty sensitive about some things. One of them is the words we use. There seems to be a trend of using the words nerd and geek as self-descriptors. (See, for example, Nerd Girls.) When I have protested this practice, I have been told several things by people who use them. One is that, by claiming them, and being proud, we change their meaning, making the words less powerful. I disagree.

These words, and their use, serve to stigmatize qualities that we should, rather, laud. Let me explain.

According to Wikipedia, nerd is a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired. The urban dictionary defines a nerd as "someone whose IQ exceeds his weight."

How about the word geek? From Wikipedia:

"The word geek is a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people, with different connotations ranging from an expert or enthusiast to a person heavily interested in a hobby, with a general pejorative meaning of a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp[ecially] one who is perceived to be overly intellectual."

I also have found references that say geeks don't have to be smart, just interested in a particular topic, and also that the term geek is not pejorative when used by an insider. So . . . is it a club? You are safe if you are part of the club, but since clubs are by nature exclusive, aren’t we just perpetuating the current membership? In engineering, that membership is not nearly as diverse, in terms of gender and ethnicity, as most believe is desirable.

These definitions suggest someone who is intelligent. They imply a limited-membership club. And they are pejorative. From this I conclude that intelligence is something to be discounted. And, if you are interested in learning, you should hide that fact. These are the messages contained in these words. 

When we call ourselves geeks or nerds, aren't we saying to those not already "in the club" that they are not welcome unless they are ready to label themselves with a term that is meant to be an insult? By using words like these, are we not shaming those interested in learning? We have no trouble celebrating athletic qualities or physical beauty. And yet, often, stereotypes suggest that those qualities cannot overlap with intelligence. How insulting to athletes and actors!

Do you agree with my position on geek, nerd, and similar terms? What words do you think best describe a young person who is passionate about STEM or engineering?

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  • Denny  Luyis

    Posted 4 months and 3 days ago

    That makes perfect sense to me. I really believe that the ability to develop writing skills is quite important. Practicing every day is wonderful. I am an academic writer, and every day I work on improving my writing abilities at . I love my job.
  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 4 years and 4 months ago

    Geek, nerd. What do these terms mean and what are their impact? It’s complicated. It depends on who is using them and how they’re being used. In my research at Techbridge Girls, I heard girls use these terms to describe people they imagined working in engineering and technology. Along with the terms, girls described engineers and tech workers in these ways--super stressed, working alone inside an office, and likely to be white and male. The stereotypes didn’t inspire them to want to pursue careers in engineering or computer science. On the flip side, I also heard girls embrace the terms geek and nerd. One year a group of Techbridge Girls created t-shirts for themselves. They brainstormed ideas and landed on “Geek is Chic” for their Techbridge Girls t-shirts. They were proud to wear the shirts and own the identity of being a geek, which for them was positive in their after-school program.

    There are a number of programs, organizations and books that use these terms. In Geek Girl Rising, authors Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens celebrate women who are building tech start-ups, investing in each other’s ventures, and creating networks of support. “The book is a call to action for women to think big and act bold, to not allow the obstacles that lie in their path to stop them from achieving their goals, and to create a roadmap to success for others to follow.”

    Cal NERDS is a program at my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. The program is for non-traditional undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields. The program is all about building community and offering resources like academic counseling and research experience. It's about making a more diverse STEM workforce.

    So, while I wouldn’t use geek and nerd to recruit kids to STEM programs I do understand that these terms can be taken on to mean more than the stereotypes.
  • Cary  Sneider

    Posted 4 years and 4 months ago

    Hi, Laura,

    Thanks so much for your fabulous blog. I had never thought of the problems involved in labeling ourselves as "geeks" or "nerds," at least not in any conscious way, before reading your blog.

    Your comment that we have no trouble celebrating athletic qualities or physical beauty reminds me how much time and effort we spend in high schools on football rallies and electing homecoming kings and queens. Perhaps the time has come to honor intellectual brilliance by spending equal time holding rallies for our school’s chess and debate teams, and awarding varsity letter sweaters to our science fair winners.
  • Jen  Gutierrez

    Posted 4 years and 4 months ago

    It wasn't until last May when I was at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) with 21 incredible STEM students (who ranged from grades 8-12) that I was informed "nerd" and "geek" were OUT, for almost precisely the reasons you shared Dr. Bottomley. I am getting old and with grown children apparently out of the loop too. As a life-long lover of all things science and STEM, but always a tad intimidated to call myself a science teacher (I taught the littles), I thought being identified as a "nerd" or "geek" was bestowed upon only those thought to be brilliant.

    But the words we chose have an incredible impact. I read a great article, What's in a Word? by Renee Schwartz, 2007 Science Scope, NSTA, and in it she focused on how word choice can develop (mis)conceptions about the nature of science. Words as everyday as "prove" and "proof" and yes, "scientific method", are used in science lessons every day all over the U.S. yet we know they will not encourage authentic engagement and discourse or help students build deep conceptual understanding. We also know these words won't support our students in their efforts to truly experience all that science has to offer.

    Once we know and understand a word’s meaning then we have to be more responsible in how we use it. I am much more aware of my use of prove or proof when discussing scientific concepts. And documents like A Framework for K12 Science Education make the conversation about "there is no such thing as a scientific method" a lively and engaging one, that with the confidence I did not always possess back in the day, I can help other educators see the impact of the words they use with their students in supporting their learning.

    I will probably not use "nerd" or "geek" like I once did, even though to me it will always be a compliment, because now I know that it means different things to different people. I love what Meg D. posted and your mention of a "club". No words we use should ever exclude anyone, especially a student who is hopefully considering all the possibilities their future holds.
  • Meg  Draeger

    Posted 4 years and 4 months ago

    To a young person passionate about STEM, I say:
    Congratulations! Good for you!
    You are courageous, inspired, living with integrity, being true to yourself.
    Keep up the good work. Keep being yourself.
    Keep asking and exploring questions. Life is not a multiple choice question, nor a simple choose the correct word to fill in the blank, but an open-ended journey.
    "STEM" and all it entails - the college majors that can serve it, the job possibilities it offers, the paths unseen to which it can lead.