Imagine a boy wearing a short-sleeve white dress shirt, a tie wrapped around his neck, thick-rimmed glasses with tape holding the middle together, and a pocket protector full of an assortment of pens. Think of the first word that comes to mind. N-E-R-D.
Now picture a new figure of a man: he’s middle-aged, wearing glasses with no tape securing the middle and no thick frames, wearing a business button-down long-sleeve shirt, and is the CEO of one of the most popular technology companies of the 21st century, Apple; this is Tim Cook and he is a modern-day N-E-R-D.
The terms nerd and geek have had a negative stereotype attached to them as types of people who were socially awkward, worked more in a technological field, and were introverted.
Tim Cook is just one example of how the stereotype of the nerd and the geek are changing from the negative view of an antisocial tech wizard to a financially and influential person in society. However, Tim Cook may be seen as a new form of a nerd, but the original words nerd and geek are far from their origins and have been shaped through the course of history and common language in society.
“Nerd” has an interesting history. The term was never meant to describe people but a mere fictional creature from a children’s book. According to the Boston Globe, the word nerd was invented by Dr. Seuss in his 1950s book “If I Ran the Zoo” which was filled with fantastic creatures.
The word “nerd” soon entered the teenage language in 1951 in a Newsweek article that rounded up teenage slang from across the country. Nerd soon took the place of the words “drip” or “square.”
to describe those who were seen as book smart. By the 1970s the word nerd took on a closer meaning to the modern sense of a glasses wearing, pocket protector, tech savvy person.
Geek’s history dates back further than the nerd and has been used to describe several different types of people. The original word geek was not used to describe intelligent people but the opposite. Wordorigins.org recorded the first use of the word geek in 1515 to label someone as a simpleton or a fool and continued through until the end of the 19th century.
When the word travelled to the United States in the 20th century, geek changed to encompass circus performers who performed in outrageous acts on stage. It was not until the mid 1970s and ‘80s when geeks took on its modern association of people with ties to technology and book smart.
As history has shown the definition of nerd and geek never stays consistent. In the 21st century the term is changing once again. Nerd and geek are losing their negative, antisocial label to a more socially acceptable one. In a personally conducted survey, 52 out of the 56 people stated the terms nerd or geek are becoming “cool” and socially acceptable.This change of the term can be seen in one of the longest examples of a stereotypical nerdy field, computer science.
In a 2013 Springer Science + Business Media article, a survey was conducted with high school and college students describing the types of people who work in the computer science field. Some of the stereotypes included having little interest in people, lack of interpersonal skills, and socially awkward.
Dr. Caroline St. Clair, North Central College professor of computer science, believes some of the stereotype comes from many students misunderstanding the field.
“Some of the stigma came from the original cubical job, but now it’s like a club to go to work,” said Dr. St. Clair. “I think it’s shifting because the field is becoming so broad. We still develop software, but now we work at help desks, ITS programs, and non-profit groups. It is more social time and more group work.”
Even in another stereotypical nerdy field of engineering, a positive change can be seen happening.
“I feel there is a stereotype. Many people assume that engineering is filled with really awkward people with no social skills, or that there are no women in the field. That is simply not the case. There is a very diverse range of people and personalities that enter into engineering, and that trend continues to be the case,” said Tom Roe, UIC senior and mechanical engineering major.
In modern society, the image of the nerd and the geek are moving away from the tech savvy anti-social person to a person who has a strong interest or passion in a certain subject or area. It’s a term that more people are identifying them with. In a personal conducted survey in March 2015, out of 56 participants, ten people labeled themselves a nerd, seven as geeks, and 19 as both a nerd and a geek.
“For me personally, it [nerd]was used as an insult in grade school, something you didn’t want to be labeled as,” stated Roe. “But now, it seems that these terms mean someone who has an interest, and doesn’t care what other people think about them for it.”
The term now has become a meaning of having a strong passion in something and being able to “geek out” about it. Some of these interests include the more typical nerdy things such as comics and video games but has branched out to include literature, history, even sports nerds.
But what sparked this shift of the terms from a negative, harsh label to a more positive one? One reason is the rise of the nerds themselves.
“One of the things that started to change was many nerds started to achieve financial success,” stated Dr. Karl Kelley, North Central College professor of psychology. “As people began to recognize the value of nerds, the view began to change more. The nerds started to gain social power.”
Basically the nerd who was seen as uncool in school moved onto to become some of the most successful and well-known people in the world. According to a BCC article some of the financially successful nerds that paved the way include Bill Gates, Steve Job, and Mark Zuckerberg. These nerds used their imagination, skills, and grasp of technology to become billionaires. Even Tim Cook has become financially successful as a nerd and now is the CEO of Apple.
Another influence to the positive view is the power within school reshaping the word. Kelley stated that when he came to NCC 28 years ago, the faculty set out to make the nerds “cool.” Since then faculty have been eradicating the negative association of the nerd and giving it a more positive outlook by showing successful nerds in history and all they accomplished throughout their lives such as Charles Darwin himself.
“I think any kind of labeling is affecting people and that’s why we got together [the faculty]to change it,” said Kelley.
A third change can be seen in everyday personal entertainment in society.
“I feel that this change is driven by the addition to classically nerd or geek topics into everyday society, especially in the realm of TV and movies,” stated Roe. One of the TV shows that is shaping the image of nerd and geek into a cool one is “The Big Bang Theory.”
The LA Times reported in October 2014 that this show about four nerdy scientist guys was the No. 1 show in the nation with 15.5 million viewers between the ages of 18-to-49 years old. Even comic book movies, once viewed as nerdy, have become some of the highest grossing films of the 21st century. According to box of cemojo.com, Marvel Studios, a comic based movie industry, has grossed nearly $2.95 billion with all of their films since the release of “Iron Man” in 2008.
In a personal conducted survey many of the participants stated that the other reason why people are becoming more open to the term nerd and geek is because people are taking more pride in who they are and their interest and never backing down from it.
Today, the image of a nerd is no longer the guy with glasses and a pocket protector. Now the nerd has become a person wearing a comic t-shirt, a person holding a literature book, a person carrying a camera for video or photography, or even a person carrying a baseball.
“If you are passionate about your field, then you can be a nerd,” said Dr. St. Clair.