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MIT staff blogger Kris Guay

What’s in a name? by Kris Guay

Is “geek” now chic? Are we happy with the word “nerd”?

I don’t watch much TV anymore and I’m a little behind when it comes to pop culture references, pop music and the like. If it wasn’t for facebook and my two teenagers, I’d be hopelessly inept at water cooler conversation. Around the time of the Oscars a few months back, I was prowling around on my laptop and I came across a post on my facebook wall from one of my very successful female engineer friends. She is a highly respected public speaker, a big First Robotics proponent, and a champion of all things STEM. She was watching the Oscars that night and she was mad.

Her post went something like this:

“Congratulations nerds” Really Mr. Franco? The technical awards go to engineers and scientists that make most of these actors and actresses look good. And they amaze us with their visual feats. Not to mention their inventions can be applied to medicine and other areas…nerds? “

Because I work at MIT and I have come to love the word nerd, I was quick to post a reply that said something about nerd pride and it being a badge of honor to be called a nerd in my book. But the ensuing string of comments didn’t agree with me at all. Her own middle school-aged son thought it was mean for someone at the Oscars to be using that term on television. And yet, we here at MIT do it all the time. She posted back that it was an insulting term, and she cited Wikipedia as agreeing with her.

I was surprised. I thought that the word nerd had gone through somewhat of a transformation lately, with the likes of journalists such as LZ Granderson, a CNN contributor, proclaiming that he is raising his own son to be a nerd.

And Ann Hoevel trying to sort out the various definitions of the words geek and nerd in this CNN feature article.

But Jessica Bruder, writing in the New York Times in a recent Sunday book review is suggesting that maybe us 40- somethings might be doing our kids a disservice when we brag about our own geekiness and nerdiness in hindsight. Maybe in the general public, in the normal high school environment, the word nerd hasn’t caught on as a cool term at all.

All these questions remind me of a time when I was coming out as gay in my 30s, when I was a suburban mom of two who was recently separated from the man I had been married to for 9 years, the father of my kids, and I was cleaning the house on a warm summer day. The windows were open and I was watching my grade school boys in the front yard playing with all the neighborhood kids. This pack of boys liked to tease the youngest one in the crowd- my youngest-and this day was no different than many. I could see them all on the patch of lawn across the street with their baseball mits in hand, and their scooters tossed on their sides in the driveway, and I heard my youngest son pull away from the crowd, throw his baseball mitt across the yard and yell really loudly.

“I am not a lesbian!”

I wiped the instant smile off my face and sprang into action. “Boys!” I yelled out the window. “I want to see all of you here right this minute.”

When I had them all assembled in a semi circle around my front steps, me standing in the doorway with my dustrag in my hand, and my youngest son wiping tears away from his eyes and scowling behind me, I said.

“Which one of you knows what the word lesbian means?”

The crowd of wide-eyed fearful faces stared back at me silent. My oldest son finally piped up and proudly said to the rest. “It means a woman who loves another woman.”

“Exactly. I said back. That’s exactly right. So why are you calling Aidan a lesbian?”

Silence.

“If you want to call Aidan stupid, then call him stupid. But don’t call him a lesbian because that’s not what the word means. Ok? Now who wants popsicles?”

They didn’t know what to do with that word, it had never entered their world at all in our quiet, tree- lined suburban town until recently. And I suspected, not in a very clear light when it did. It seemed to them fair game to use it as a pejorative. I had to laugh because I had no real use for the word either. It didn’t fit me at all. I was relieved when several years later I discovered that intellectuals at Harvard and Berkeley had reclaimed the word Queer and I chose that for my own for a short time, even writing my masters thesis on the performance aspects of gender and reading Margaret Fuller’s contributions to the romantic canon as decidedly “queer.”

“But mom,” my now older boys would implore, “isn’t that a bad word? Why do you want to use that word?” And my college art school friends would scoff “Oh cut it out, you are so NOT queer.”

So what’s in a name anyway? Are we making too much of the word nerd? Not enough at all? Maybe it is time for proud MIT nerds to reclaim the word and update wikipedia with a full and modern definition?

Because the young “nerds” I know are math and science whizzes, they find joy in solving puzzles, take part in trivia sparring, and spend their summers solving calculus problems. But many of these same so-called geeky kids also jump on their bikes and ride all over Cambridge, they are expert athletes, find time for art exhibits, and chill with their friends in bars in Boston.

They are all over MIT and they are nothing short of awesome.

11 responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. I think there’s a difference between MIT kids calling ourselves nerds and other people using the word “nerd” in a derogatory way. We’ve come to embrace the word and we call ourselves nerds jokingly, knowing that in the “real world” the word “nerd” still evokes images of gigantic glasses and pocket protectors.

    I also don’t understand the concept of “nerd chic” or “geek chic” purely because people use those terms to mean the exact opposite of the general connotation of “nerd” or “geek.” It’s almost condescending in the way that nerds are called “adorable” and girls wear gigantic glasses in an effort to look more “nerdy.”

    The other thing is that the term “nerd” is a sweeping way to group everyone in STEM fields into one gigantic conglomeration of social awkwardness. So “Congratulations nerds!” becomes an impersonal and almost elitist way of separating the “artists” from the “tech geeks.”

    “Nerd” hasn’t caught on as a cool term per se. It’s more a fashionable term to throw around, especially when you want people to see you as anything but a nerd. But if you’re actually a nerd, it’s still (unfortunately) as uncool as ever.

  2. engineers/science+math-whizzes calling themselves nerds : outsiders derogatorily calling the engineers/science+math-whizzes nerds :: black individuals calling themselves the “N” word : whites derogatorily calling the black individuals the “N” word.

    … is there a right answer? Maybe the term “hypocrite” comes to mind??? I’m not black so I don’t know how the latter feels, but I am an engineer, and the former “nerd” from my peers is funny, but secretly “nerd” from my siblings hurts …

    p.s. engineers/science+math-whizzes calling themselves nerds : outsiders derogatorily calling the engineers/science+math-whizzes nerds :: black individuals calling themselves the “N” word : whites derogatorily calling the black individuals the “N” word.

    … is there a right answer? Maybe the term “hypocrite” comes to mind??? I’m not black so I don’t know how the latter feels, but I am an engineer, and the former “nerd” from my peers is funny, but secretly “nerd” from my siblings hurts …

    p.s. <3 the Shakespeare reference…

  3. * p.s. * p.s. <3 the Shakespeare reference…

  4. Anonymous says:

    Want a new definition of nerd?

    Meet Printz Award-Winning Author John Green and his brother, Hank, founders of the Nerdfighters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyQi79aYfxU

  5. Evedizzy says:

    I think the term nerd has a changed meaning. I think that the negative connotation it used to have isn’t as strong (for the very least) …but maybe I am just surrounded by nerds all the time…

  6. Morgan Sinko says:

    I have no problem with the term nerd. The term geek on the other hand is derived from a street performer who bites the heads off chickens. The fact that the word started in a state of such disrespect makes it simply appropriate.

  7. Sideshow Fan says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geek

    I think you mean geeks bite heads off of chickens.

  8. crusty alum says:

    MIT revised my definition of nerd. Now I think a nerd is someone who obsesses about something because to them it’s so cool they can’t help themselves and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The something doesn’t have to be science-y…you could be a pro football nerd, or a Pink Floyd nerd, not necessarily a computer/math/etc nerd. And while I was at MIT I felt like a lot of people were nerdy in this way – that is, that they had some project (science-related or not) that they were really excited about and put a lot of work into, even if it wasn’t for classes. Actually to me that was part of made MIT different and special…this kind of obsession about something is what makes someone great at that something, right?

    It’s just that somehow wanting to talk about football stats all the time is (often) socially acceptable, while wanting to talk about Fermat’s last theorem all the time almost always isn’t….