What is this thing you call "nerd"?

kirk teaches alien about love

What is this thing you call “love”?

Aliens, especially relatively humanoid ones who coexist with humans, also express curiosity of this strange human custom: why would humans put so much emphasis on a single word that appears to serve no useful function? Universally attractive aliens seem to be vulnerable for instantly falling for human men and needing to be taught in matters of kissing.


What is this thing you call “nerd”? (David Brooks)

Li argues that Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.

What is this thing you call “X”? (Geoff Pullum)

whenever someone says that the X people have no word for Y in their language you should put your hand on your wallet — to make sure it’s still there. The people who witter on about who has a word for what hardly ever even know the languages they are talking about, and in the vast majority of cases (check out some of the cases on this list) their claim is false.

Is there really a word for “nerd” in Chinese? (Victor Mair)

To sum up, even those informants who said that shūdāizi (“bookworm”) is the closest you can get to “nerd” in Chinese recognize that it is very different from the latter word in English. Many young people, especially in Hong Kong and also in Taiwan, simply use the English word “nerd”; the English word is also increasingly used on the Mainland. A graduate student from the Mainland states: “I’ve never heard a translation for ‘nerd’. If someone in China says it, the word must be in English.” Another graduate student from the Mainland declares: “When we talk about a geek in Chinese, we only say ‘geek’, using the English word. No Chinese word can deliver the exact meaning.”

A generous reading of Brooks might see him as saying something analogous to what Mair is saying, but Brooks and Mair are actually deploying very different notions of culture. For Brooks culture is monolithic and static, for Mair culture is heterogeneous and malleable. What is particularly problematic about Brooks is his conflation of China, the country, with the Chinese language. Not only there are many Chinese speakers living in the U.S. who have to deal every day with American stereotypes of Asian students as “nerds” but there Chinese speaking countries outside of China, like Taiwan, with very different education systems.

Which isn’t to say that “shūdāizi” means the same thing in Taiwan that “nerd” does in the U.S. It doesn’t. In fact, every time I teach the anthropology of education to my students here in Taiwan I find myself spending a lot of time trying to explain the U.S. concept of “jocks” and “nerds” so that my students can better understand the American texts. If anything, the Mair piece suggests to me that “nerd” is used more in China than it is in Taiwan.

It is important to keep in mind the very different histories of Confucianism in China and Taiwan. During the post-war period Taiwan’s KMT government, run by recent immigrants from China, sought local legitimacy by promoting Confucian values. In China, on the other hand, the revolution sought to overthrow Confucianism. It is only recently that China has once again sought the mantel of Confucianism, even promoting soft-power through international “Confucius Institutes.” Educational culture in the two countries is very much shaped by the political-economic history of educational institutions and can’t be easily reduced to what Brooks refers to all-too-readily as “Chinese culture.”

Moreover, as Mark Liberman points out in his latest post on the topic, even in the US the term “nerds” is much more complex than Brooks makes it out to be. Liberman sites Mary Bucholtz’ excellent work on nerd girls to highlight the complex dynamics by which the term “nerd” is shaped through local meanings:

I propose that nerds in US high schools are not socially isolated misfits, but competent members of a distinctive and oppositionally defined community of practice.

He ends with a call for more ethnographically informed discussions of the topic. Narf!

13 thoughts on “What is this thing you call "nerd"?

  1. The celebration (fetishizing) of intelligence of preadolescence, before experience (social and sexual). It’s not the adult decision to avoid the sensual, it’s more simply obsessive/phobic: irony as jealousy, and rationalism less as choice than out of emotional necessity. Ideas are clean, things are icky. You may indulge the physical but you don’t respect it.

    Scholars are not geeks. Nerds and geeks are the products of the culture of science, not the humanities. If we now have poetry geeks, blame it on Taylor, Ford and Sputnik.

  2. Is there a word for “love” in Chinese? Of course there is. The word is 愛,romanized “ai,” pronounced “I.” Curiously it’s the same word in Japanese, where it is also romanized “ai” and pronounced “I.” Why, then, does traditional Japanese drama include the plot-device called love-suicide (Romeo and Juliet, but nothing accidental about it. The lovers, barred by status from each other in life join each other in dying together), a device, which, if it exists in Chinese drama, is rare enough not to be mentioned as a cultural phenomenon? Conversely, why have public displays of affection, once frowned upon in Chinese, Japanese, and, yes, WASP American culture, become more acceptable, even expected (albeit to different degrees in different subcultures) in all three societies?

  3. @diegovela um, what about music geeks? the term geek is very different from nerd in its usage. generally geek has to do with forms of technical knowledge pursued obsessively, hence language and music geeks in addition to computer geeks. and anthropology geeks. in fact, my students at w & m and now at berklee used the term frequently well outside of a hard science domain

  4. Music geeks or poetry geeks; I covered that. But you could see them as coming from the model of librarians rather than scholars, record-keepers rather than interpreters: they love categories more than the spaces between them. Librarians are bureaucrats of knowledge, and we live in an age of bureaucracy. Of course I’m categorizing them, but they make it easy. If they wanted to make it harder they wouldn’t be geeks.

  5. In Cherokee, in a cultural demonstration for tourists at a living village a story teller will often visitors that in the Cherokee language there are no swear words. *audience nods approvingly*

    So if they get really mad, they use English. *cue laughter*

    Culture is heterogeneous and malleable indeed.

  6. So the choice is between immature irony of immature enthusiasm.
    The model is still preadolescent: intellectually , socially, sexually. 10 year olds with Asperger’s are perfectly un-ironic in their love for varieties of industrial deep fat friars and window fans, or whatever else they fixate on. Geeks are un-ironic in their love of numbers. That doesn’t change the problem. How am I supposed to respond to someone who refers to “meatspace”, the language of dualism and disgust. Geekdom is a fantasy of superiority with it origins in the arrogance of 8 year olds who laugh at 13 year olds. Teenagers grow up eventually.

    Technocracy is geek utopia. It’s not mine.

  7. I don’t want to assume that you’re an anthropologist, since SM has a wide readership, but at the same time it is an anthropology blog, and I’m not sure that rejecting a group’s self-understanding out of hand is a useful way to develop ethnographic understanding. To translate your last statement into another culture, it seems to be the equivalent of “Patrilineal cross-cousin marriage is the Trobriander’s ideal marriage partner. It’s not mine.” That may be so, but it does little to enhance understanding of your own views or of the views of the culture in question. I know (both as friends and as interlocutors) lots of people who identify as geeks who are neither particularly skilled or interested in math, many who reject much of technology, and some who have little to do with either. I’m not sure why one would refuse their self-identification as geeks. There are a lot of good studies out there that cover a wide range of geek culture; one of my personal favorites is a dissertation by Jason Tocci called “Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in a Digital Age.” If you are interested in considering another view of geeks, I recommend it: The abstract is available at http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3395723/.

  8. @Nick The ethnography of geek culture is relevant to the topic of translatability – as per my reference to Mark Liberman.

  9. @kerim. i remember seeing the “revenge of the nerds” at a movie theater in taichung (ok; so my friends dragged me to a bad movie). as i recall, the subtitles translated nerd as cainiao (菜鳥), which didn’t really mean nerd but made sense in the context of nerds versus frat boy movie. i think that cainiao, which had connotations of being “lame”, is no longer current slang

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