Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2

« previous post | next post »

The question of whether or not there's a word for "nerd" in Chinese has recently come up, in Mark Liberman's "'Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit'".

Mark quotes Tom Scocca, who cites three terms:  fáwèi de rén 乏味的人 ("a dull and tasteless person"), diànnǎomí 电脑迷 ("someone excessively enthusiastic about computers"), and shūdāizi 书呆子 ("bookworm; pedant").

But none of these expressions comes close to functioning the way "nerd" does in contemporary American society.  The first, fáwèi de rén, is a makeshift, ad hoc dictionary definition that explains a small part of what "nerd" signifies, but is not a set term that has the social-intellectual resonance and reach of "nerd".  The second, diànnǎomí, is simply incorrect as even a translation of "nerd", since some people have called me a nerd, but I am absolutely terrified of computers (all of my good friends know that very well), though it might serve as a partial definition-explanation of "geek" (more about that below).  The third, shūdāizi, is often invoked as a Chinese functional equivalent of "nerd", but even many of the people who mention it do so a bit sheepishly and admit that it's not really the same thing as "nerd", whereas most people (myself included) will say that it's not even remotely equivalent to "nerd".

I would like to discuss the problem of "nerd" in Chinese from a broader standpoint, namely, how ideas and concepts — and the words that signify them — pass from one culture to another.

So let's continue our examination of the question of how to say "nerd" in Chinese.  First of all, we have to know what "nerd" itself means.  It doesn't just signify a bookish or pedantic person, but rather someone who is socially inept or square (try finding an exactly equivalent word for that in Chinese!), perhaps, but not necessarily, because of a consuming commitment to intellectual or technical pursuits (in my case it's Language Log).

I asked about thirty native speakers of various Sinitic languages and topolects how they would say "nerd" in Chinese.  Around half of them flat out said that you cannot say "nerd" in Chinese, but must borrow the English word.  Roughly another quarter mentioned shūdāizi ("bookworm"), or variants thereof, while another quarter listed all sorts of colorful terms meaning — more or less — "fool; blockhead; dolt; dunce; dullard; simpleton; numskull"; etc.), none of which are really comparable to "nerd".  I'll just list a few of the more interesting Chinese terms of the latter sort:

Mandarin:

chǔnrén 蠢人 ("dolt") — note the two "worm / bug" radicals!)

dāizi 呆子 ("fool; sucker; idiot; goon; gawk; simpleton; calf; blockhead") — this is the shūdāizi 书呆子 ("bookworm") discussed above, but without the book at the beginning

shǎguā 傻瓜 ("muddle-headed melon") — this is one of my favorite words in Mandarin; can be used endearingly

chǔnhuò 蠢货 ("stupid goods")

Here follow some expressions from topolects whose pronunciations I'm not sure about, so I will usually give only the characters and the meanings, though I will make a stab in the dark for some of the pronunciations where I have a bit of a clue.

Cantonese:

zaak6 naam4 宅男 ("home boy / man") — see the brief discussion of Japanese otaku and the derived Cantonese terms below

电车男 ("trolley / tram / streetcar boy / man")

书虫 ("bookworm")

隐蔽青年 ("secluded / hidden / sequestered youth") — mostly used in very formal situations, like news broadcasting and in printed media

憨居 or 憨居居 ("silly; simple-minded") — tends to have a more derogatory meaning than the above words, indicating someone who is easily deceived or flat out stupid; "doesn't capture the entire meaning of nerd, it simply describes the person as foolish, gullible, and socially handicapped"

薯仔 ("yam young'un") — "has multiple meanings, but is mostly used to describe a person who is dowdy, unhip, and a bit antediluvian"

Shandongese:

愣子 ("person who is dazed / blank / dumb")

楞蛋 ("angular / square egg") — close to the "square" I talked about above

愣头青 ("blank-head youth")

Sichuanese:

憨包 ("foolish bag")

猪脑壳 ("pig skull")

哈儿 ("gaper" [?] — I honestly don't know the derivation of this term)

闷(达儿) ("imbecile" [?])

莽子 ("boor" [?])

Suzhouese and Shanghainese:

gangnin (don't know the tones) [赣 above 心 below]人 ("muddlehead") — one of my informants comments:

There is a word that sounds like gǎngníng 港宁 [VHM:  "port middle", but the characters are here being used strictly for the purpose of transcribing the Shanghainese sounds of the word in question], yet it does't exactly mean "nerd". It can be used affectionately towards children when they are acting silly, or towards somebody close who is "dorky". I think "dork" would be closer to the meaning?  Either way, it's more of an affectionate name than an actual title. The more hostile version of 港宁, which is gǎngdù 港度 (it sounds like that, I'm not sure how to write the words) [VHM: neither my informant nor I know how to write this Shanghainese word in characters, nor how to transcribe it in Roman letters], which is "idiot". It can be used both affectionately and offensively.

N.B.:  It is widely believe that this Shanghainese and Suzhouese term should be written as 憨人 ("simpleton") in characters, but the proper characters are as given above (see Wāng Píng 汪平, Xuéshuō Sūzhōu huà《学说苏州话》(Learning to Speak Suzhouese).

书毒头 ("egghead" [?]) — has a complimentary connotation

书蠹头 ("book worm-eaten/infested head")

This is obviously another way of writing the previous term, which — character by character — literally means "book poison head"!  Clearly, there is no consensus among Wu speakers about how to write the second syllable.  One informant put it this way:  "…[It]'s impossible to write it.  However, I'm guessing that the first character is 书 ["book"], and the last is 头 ["head"], but nobody in our family knew what the middle 'duh' is. It could be 读, or 独. Or maybe nothing at all, just a sound."  Another informant told me it might be 倒.

I'm not sure how to transcribe the pronunciation of this word in either Suzhouese or Shanghainese, but it's something like siduhdeu.

Hunanese:

书迂子 ("pedant")

Hokkien:

"…people would say something that sounds like 'come-come'; it's not a literal term but very commonly used in daily conversation; can be derogatory or complimentary, depending upon the context"

All of these terms, and I could list many more, attest to the rich vocabulary for referring to fools and simpletons in Chinese, but none of them means what "nerd" does.

Here are some new usages in Mandarin that aren't really stabilized yet (in many cases, it is not evident how or why they have come to mean something like "nerd"):

Kǒng Zǐ 孔子 ("Confucius")

lǐkē nán 理科男 ("science male") — colloquial

èr 二 ("two") — a couple of my informants mentioned this as recently being used in contexts that resemble those in which "nerd" appears in English

zháinán/nǚ 宅男/女 ("home boy / girl") — these and related terms with zhái 宅 ("home; residence") in them must derive from Japanese otaku.  For the origins of this usage in Japanese, Wikipedia puts it this way:

Otaku is derived from a Japanese term for another's house or family (お宅, otaku). This word is often used metaphorically, as an honorific second-person pronoun. In this usage, its literal translation is "you"….  The modern slang form, which is distinguished from the older usage by being written only in hiragana (おたく) or katakana (オタク or, less frequently, ヲタク), or rarely in rōmaji, appeared in public discourse in the 1980s, through the work of humorist and essayist Akio Nakamori. His 1983 series An Investigation of "Otaku" (『おたく』の研究 "Otaku" no Kenkyū?), printed in the lolicon [VHM:  "Lolita Complex"] magazine Manga Burikko, applied the term to unpleasant fans in caricature.

The Japanese Wikipedia page on otaku reads:

中森が連載した『「おたく」の研究 』(1983年)の中で、アニメや漫画の愛好者が二人称として「御宅」という語を使う異質性から、その人間類型をおたくと呼称することが提案された。中森 はオタクを非常に否定的な文脈で記述しており、

A rough translation:  "In the 1983 column Otaku no kenkyuu, Nakamori Akio proposed to call anime and manga enthusiasts 'otaku' based on the bizarreness of their use of the term as the second-person pronoun. Nakamori used the term in an extremely negative context."

But Japanese doesn't have one specific word for "nerd," as evidenced in part by the translation of Revenge of the Nerds as ナーズの復讐 (ふくしゅう), where the English word is transcribed in katakana (nāzu).

One of my correspondents tells me that her Korean friends say something like "pabao" to mean "nerd".

On the internet, we often encounter guàikā 怪咖 ("weirdo; freak") — this started in Taiwan among Taiwanese speakers but has now been picked up by Mandarin speakers as well.  One of my correspondents suggested this as a possible Chinese equivalent for "nerd".  I suspect, rather, that it is a fusion of the Chinese word for "strange / odd / queer" and the English word "geek", the second syllable serving as a transcription of the final consonant of the English word.  And this brings up the problem of "nerd" versus "geek", another word whose meaning and nuances are very hard to express with a single Chinese word.

In this case, rather than relying on approximations like shūdāizi 书呆子 ("bookworm; pedant") or borrowing the English word directly, it seems that transcription is favored, e.g., jíkè 极客, qíkè奇客.  There are many transcriptional forms for "geek(y)" in Hong Kong Cantonese, such as 騎呢, 怪鸡,搞机… too many to list.

In Japanese, for "geek", one might in some situations say -kon 控.  See "Morpheme(s) of the Year".

In Cantonese, as in Japanese and other East Asian languages, "nerd" and "geek" seem to get blended together.  Here are relevant entries from Bob Bauer's forthcoming ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary:

zaak6 naam4 宅男 (lit., "house male") term was likely originally borrowed from Japanese into Taiwan Mandarin in 2005 in connection with the broadcast of the popular Japanese TV drama "Densha otoko" 电车男 ("train man"); term is similar in meaning to duk6 naam4 男 (lit., "poisonous male") DEFINITION:  nerd, geek: a young man who barricades himself in his room at home and spends most of the time surfing the internet on his computer, playing video games, avoiding face-to-face interaction and communication with other people, esp. women, and neglecting his physical appearance and personal hygiene

duk6 naam4 男 (lit., "poisonous male") term is similar in meaning to zaak6 naam4 宅男 (lit., "house male") young man who is single, introverted, socially-inept, unpopular with girls, and spends most of his time shut up in his room surfing the internet

We've often discussed the problem of "letter words" and English terms becoming a part of the Chinese lexicon and indeed of the alphabet becoming a part of the Chinese writing system, e.g., this post and the references therein.

A very common expression in China nowadays is "PK".  It most likely comes from "player killer" in "Counter-Strike" and other popular video games in net cafe culture (though there are competing theories of its origins) and means "to thoroughly dominate" or "to beat" in competition.  It may also be used in the sense of "call out" or "make a comparison between multiple contestants."

Several things to note about PK:

1. People who left China just a few years ago simply do not know this kind of very popular language.

2. PK is not an abbreviation or acronym of a Chinese term, but it now has become Chinese.

3. People who use terms such as PK freely must, whether directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, be aware of their basis in English.

4. PK and such terms are part of global culture.  They are neither merely English nor borrowed Chinese terms.

5. As so often happens when words cross from one language to another language, it does not mean exactly the same thing in Chinese ("to thoroughly dominate; to beat" [in one-on-one or multiple competition]) that it means in English ("player killer").

Brendan O'Kane and Matt Smith have done a considerable amount of research on this term (PK) in Chinese.  If anyone has a particular interest in the origins and usage of "PK" in China, I could share their notes.

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."

Many Chinese speakers are aware of the subtle differences and similarities between "nerd" and "geek", as is evidenced by this article, which comes with a neat Venn diagram.

And here is an English article that distinguishes among "geek", "nerd", "dork" and "dweeb", which comes with an even neater Venn diagram.

To return to the main theme of this essay, "how ideas and concepts — and the words that signify them — pass from one culture to another", this is what borrowing is all about.  When one culture in contact with another culture discovers an idea / term that it considers to be lacking in its own culture and feels the need to acquire it, there are many different strategies for doing so.  Sometimes they borrow the idea / object / technique and give it a new name of their own; sometimes they borrow the idea / object / technique together with its name, which they may accept as is or which they may alter to their own taste and needs.  "PK" has come into Chinese as a "letter word" (zìmǔ cí 字母词), "nerd" has entered Chinese directly as a borrowing, but also through various approximations and adaptations, while "geek" has been assimilated through partial and full transcription, plus outright borrowing.  One thing is certain:  words, ideas, objects, and techniques travel far and wide across the globe, leading to cross-fertilization and mutual enrichment of the cultures that belong to the human family.

[A tip of the hat to Sanping Chen and thanks to Matt Smith, Brendan O'Kane, David Lancashire, Nathan Hopson, Hiroko Sherry, Yunong Zhou, Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, Xu Wenkan, Zhenzhen Lu, Gianni Wan, Mandy Chan, Annie Chan, Rebecca Fu, Jing Wen, Sophie Wei, Wu Yue, Alan Chin, Tyler Cheung, Fan Jiayang, Cao Lin, Cheng Fangyi, Wu Yuchang, Chen Wenjie, Zōu Chénkē, Bob Bauer, Don Snow, and Summer Hu]

Share:



100 Comments »

  1. Jim Breen said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    ナーズ is more commonly seen in Japanese as the transliteration of "Nars", a brand of cosmetics.

  2. Pete said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

    In my experience, -kon in Japanese means sexual attraction to. If I ever heard someone say they were a mangacon, I would take that to mean they were sexually attracted to comics.

  3. Gianni said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    A long list indeed. It reminds me of the AA acronym we once talked over.

  4. William Steed said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

    书毒头 in Suzhou is probably something like [sʯdʊ̆dɤ], where [ʯ] is a rounded apical continuant. I'm not sure of the tones in Suzhou, but in Shanghai it'd likely be [sydʊ̆dɤ 33.5.21]. It's in 简明吴方言词典 as [sɿ53.doʔ2.dɤ13], defined as 书呆子. The example given is 上海有一句土话,叫什么“书毒头”就是北方边说的“书呆子”的意思。

    As for 戆人, if it sounds like gang3ning2 in Mandarin, there's only one lower register tone possibility for a 舒 syllable (one that isn't a short vowel) in Shanghainese. The tone spreading means that the second syllable tone (which would be [13] anyway) is irrelevant. It'd have to be [gɑn.niŋ 11.13]. I've just confirmed it in 简明吴方言词典 – 戆 is listed as [gaŋ 13] meaning 傻 (stupid). It also lists 戆头戆脑 with the definition 形容鲁奔冒失的样子; 傻里傻气. Basically, it seems that 戆人 just means stupid person, rather than nerd.

  5. Jeff Carney said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

    One thing I wonder about, especially with "geek," is whether the sense of irony gets passed along to other cultures. A dweeb today is still the same dweeb we knew 40 years ago (I think). But today's geek assumes the label proudly. There's always this feeling of, "Yeah, I'm kind of a dork, but dorks like me started Microsoft and Yahoo, and when your hard drive crashes, you're glad I'm around."

  6. Steve said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    For the purposes of Professor Liberman's post, the ultimate issue, I think, is not whether the Chinese have a word that corresponds perfectly with "nerd", but whether there is a word in Chinese that has a sense of "one who is being made fun of because s/he is perceived as studying too hard, or as as having gotten too good of grades". Brooks claimed, in effect, that the Chinese do not have a word for such a thing, presumably because education is given such importance in Chinese culture that the idea that somebody would be mocked for being too good of a student would be incomprehensible. Scocca essentially asserted that this was nonsense, but, in proclaiming it such, failed to prove that there actually is a Chinese word that means nerd in the sense relevant here (the "too good at school" sense). I suspect that the idea of a person being mocked for that reason would be something that could be conveyed, in some fashion, in a Chinese language, although perhaps not through any one word, and the idea might strike many Chinese people as bizarre (although I don't know if it would seem bizarre, and would not simply assume that this is true).

    It remains unclear to me if there is a Chinese word that means anything like "person I hold in contempt because be or she is too good of a student." The closest equivalent terms, at least mentioned here, seem to be the words that translate as bookworm, but bookworm, to me, connotes somebody who loves reading books for pleasure, not an overly diligent student whose grades are "too good." Of course, that is assuming that the Chinese terms that are typically translated as "bookworm" have the same connotations that the English word has.

  7. Matt said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    Extremely minor editing note: this post seems to suggest that the character 控 would be used in Japanese to render the morpheme "-kon" (from "complex", but as you say in the original post, "-控" is a Chinese phonetic rendering; in Japan it would invariably be written in kana.

    I also kind of agree with Pete that -kon doesn't signify nerdiness so much as an unhealthy relationship. There is of course a big overlap with nerd culture when it comes to words like ロリコン but not so much for words like マザコン ("mother complex" → "mama's boy").

    Anecdata/possible confirmation bias alert, but here in Japan over the past few years I have been noticing more use of 理科系 and/or 理系. These both mean roughly "science type" (as opposed to, for example, "humanities type"), and seem to be intended as baggage-free replacements for "otaku", describing people who are indeed introverted and interested in technology but without the implication that they are also obsessed with anime, idol fandom, etc.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    From Grace Wu:

    For nerd/geek, I will say "書呆子“ (shūdāizi) in Mandarin。”書呆” (chhu-tai) in Taiwanese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

    @Steve

    This might fit what you're searching for: mó shū 磨書 literally, "grinding or sharpening books" as you would a knife, which means exactly the same in English, as in, "he's such a grind, always at the library."

    When I was at Dartmouth (1961-65), we had the expression "booker", which was used to poke fun at people who studied too hard.

  10. Peter Nelson said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

    宅男 is widely used in Mandarin now too. It's not exactly the same as "nerd", but it's close. You could argue that it refers strictly to being a homebody, but if you look at how it's used, you'll see it implies the guy plays computer games and spends all day on the internet.

    Baike: http://baike.baidu.com/view/300843.htm
    A TV show where the (super nerdy) male lead is described as a 宅男: http://blog.roodo.com/ceoalbertwang/5cc985a0.jpg

    PS: Confused about the statement about "港宁" being the "proper characters". Am I misunderstanding that? It seems obvious that the "宁" is a phonetic rendering of "person" and would therefore make sense to write as "人".

  11. David Moser said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

    My I just point out that Victor is — and I mean this in the most positive sense — one of the most gloriously geeky nerds of all time. As this post shows. Bless his heart.

  12. Nicholas said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    As a (somewhat lapsed) Cantonese speaker who hadn't heard about the proliferation of "PK" in Mandarin-speaking China, it surprises me to hear it attributed to "player-killing" in computer games. Well before widespread broadband and the boom of multiplayer games, PK was already an established slur in Cantonese, standing for 仆街 (puk1 gaai1), an acronym of the Romanization. I would be astonished if it weren't connected to the present use of "PK" elsewhere.

    Relatedly, it's common among those who play competitive online games in South Korea to capitulate to their opponents by punching in 지지 (or just ㅈㅈ) as a phonetic approximation of "gg", from the English "good game".

  13. jan said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    Um, I'm wondering, if you're terrified of computers, how are you getting your blog posts onto the internet? Just curious. Thanks.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 10:29 pm

    @jan

    My LLog colleagues help me with the harder stuff, though I can — with great effort — do the simpler things myself, but it took me much time and suffering to learn even the basics.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

    From one of my Hong Kong Cantonese informants: "There are many transcriptional forms for "geek(y)" in Hong Kong Cantonese, such as 騎呢, 怪鸡,搞机… too many to list".

    Two Cantonese speakers from the Mainland tell me that "騎呢 means someone who does inappropriate things or does some funny things, such as someone trims his nails in the class; 怪鸡 means someone who wears very strange and inappropriate clothes; 搞机, which sounds the same as 搞基, means 搞基 (who engages in homosexual activity, not necessarily sex, but acts with intimate relationship) either."

  16. julie lee said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    A young friend who attended Cambridge University about 17 years ago as an English-and -Russian major said the humanities students would call Nat Sci (Natural Sciences) majors at Cambridge "Natzis", apparently meaning "nerds".

    I'd offer another word close to "nerd" in Chinese—YUFU 迂腐 (an adjective describing a scholar sorely lacking in common sense, a kind of a Don Quixote), and the noun, YUFUZI 迂夫子, often used sarcastically—like the word "nerd"— by people who have less learning but pride themselves on their good sense. (FUZI in YUFUZI means "Meister", and is a common term for Confucius. YUFUZI is a term of good-natured sarcasm.)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 12:06 am

    @Peter Nelson

    港 and 宁 are here being used in their Mandarin pronunciation to approximate the Shanghainese sounds of the disyllabic word in question. The Shanghainese morpheme of the second syllable is probably best represented with the character 人 ("person"), but when that is pronounced in Mandarin, it doesn't sound like the Shanghainese, so that is why 宁 is used instead by Mandarin speakers who want to sound like they're pronouncing Shanghainese.

  18. Andy Averill said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 1:34 am

    You may have said this and I missed it — when the Chinese borrow a word like nerd from English, do they write it in Chinese characters or roman letters?

  19. John Renfroe said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 3:09 am

    In Taiwan at least, PK refers to a competition or showdown, or the verb "to compete," rather than to defeat. "你有沒有種來PK?" I've heard many different explanations of the origin, including the Counter Strike one mentioned above, as well as "penalty kick" in soccer, which I find more doubtful. Taiwanese people are always surprised to find out that we don't use this word in English. The first time I asked what it meant, my friend said "應該跟英文一樣吧."

  20. joanne salton said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 4:25 am

    As Steve says, and as the immense and interesting list (which as David Moser says is a touch ironic) shows, the Chinese most certainly know how to knock a bookworm, or anyone else who deviates. That is the main point, and thus the original "Chinese have no word for it" theme is indeed misleading.

    Andy – they use Chinese.

  21. maidhc said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 4:44 am

    English has no word for "je ne sais quoi"!

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    @maidhc

    Fahrvergnügen

    Sprachgefühl

    Schadenfreude

    Schmaltz

    chutzpah

    fartlek (my American friends always laugh when they hear this Swedish word — it doesn't mean what you think it does)

    ciao (how I like to close my letters)

    sforzando (and most all other musical performance terminology)

    etc., etc.

    EXCEPT that I guess by now we may be said to have borrowed all of these terms into English, which is one of the glories of the English language, something that I loved about it from the time I was in elementary school. Studying the etymologies / origins of English words was for me like collecting stamps. Through them, in rural Ohio, I was able to travel the world. Japanese is also extremely rich in its borrowings, although it's often hard to see them through the katakana.

  23. Wentao said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    @Steve

    I'm thinking of a word that means "working too hard / being too good at school" – 学霸 (xuébà).

    The usage of this word is rather recent, but widespread on social networks such as Renren. Its connotations can be either positive or negative, depending on context. I've seen an online post comparing 学霸 to 学神 – the latter is shown to be superior because they can handle schoolwork so easily and excel in academics without excessive work. In this case 学霸 is apparently derogatory.

    However, its antonyms, 学弱 and 学渣, are almost exclusively negative (usually used as a term of self-depreciation). In this case 学霸 is something to be proud of and admired at. There is even an iOS App called 我要当学霸 (I Wanna Be a Xuébà), which temporarily blocks IM and Internet access on one's phone, similar to "Self Control".

  24. Faldone said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    Ah, but the French have no word for "I don't know what."

  25. Outis said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    I remember that back in the mid-90's, there was an attempt (probably by some record promoters) to popularise the term "嫩呆族" in Taiwan. It was supposed to be the Mandarin equivalent of "nerds", and in some ways, both phonetically and semantically, it is a clever approximate.

    But of course it never caught on.

  26. Zubon said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    We run an online gaming blog, and I would be thrilled to see the research notes on the use of "PK." The primary use sounds similar to "pwn" in English gamer slang.

  27. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    joanne salton says,
    "the Chinese most certainly know how to knock a bookworm, or anyone else who deviates."

    Certainly, and as @Wentao says, the new Chinese term XUEBA gives the idea of a nerd as someone who is too good in academics.

    But Victor Mair has a point when he says Chinese is being Englishized by a lot of transcriptions of English words that are untranslatable into Chinese, such as JIKE or QIKE in Chinese for English GEEK. It's always hard to translate a word exactly together with its allusiveness, flavor, or wit and humor. One example is BEATLE, transcribed in Chinese as PITOU. Another is the word QUARK in physics, transcribed in Chinese as 夸克 KUAKE. The Chinese transcription loses the allusiveness and charm of English QUARK, a word invented by Gell-Mann and partly inspired by James Joyce:

    Three quarks for Muster Mark!
    Sure he has not got much of a bark
    And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.
    —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake[44]

    Gell-Mann understood "three quarks" to mean "three quarts".

  28. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    re @Wentao

    The derogatory Chinese term XUEBA學霸 for NERD (someone who studies too hard or who is too good at his studies) translated literally is "scholarly strongman/hegemon/superpower", "intellectual bully". I was told by a young Chinese friend who holds a doctorate in mathematics that her American office mates (who don't have a doctorate) call her "an intellectual bully". PhDs in math, physics, and engineering gravitated to finance in the 80s and 90s. They are also disparagingly called "techies" and "quants".
    I love these putdown words, of which every language has an abundance.

  29. rpsms said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    @zubon:

    PK, at least in the US is also referred to as "TK" (team killing/killer) and "griefer/griefing" (intentionally disrupting gameplay and causing grief). Counterstrike and many other online games have team play but also have "team damage" where you can cause damage to your teammates and they must wait for the round to restart.

    None of these terms are complimentary, and none of them have anything to do with p0wnage, and it also has little to do with consensual player vs. player gameplay.

    "Asshole" is a pretty good synonym.

    I suspect it carries similar connotations.

  30. Bertilo Wennergren said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    The article seems to be a very long and cumbersome way of saying "The Chinese word for 'nerd' is 'nerd'". Yes, it's a loanword from English. Does that matter? Lots of English words come from other languages. The Swedish word for "nerd" is "nörd". That's also a loanword from English. Who cares?

  31. Zubon said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    @rpsms:

    And in the MMO genre, PK refers most often to consensual PvP. "TK" or "griefer" is the term more in use in my part of the internet to refer to abuse of friendly fire mechanics.

    Victor Mair's suggested Chinese usage is not similar to the US usage, closer to US "pwn" or Korean gamers' references to cooked rice as slang for "easy victory," although the latter seems like a stronger implication about the quality of the loser than the victor.

  32. Lameen said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    (To Bertilo above)
    Do non-bilingual Chinese people – who make up the majority of speakers, after all – know the English word "nerd" and what it means? If not, it's not a borrowing yet.

  33. Zubon said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    @Bertilo Wennergren:

    Language nerds care.

  34. minus273 said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    In the original meme, 学霸 stands in contrast with 神 (gods). While gods are natural geniuses, enjoying their life and excel in exams without any apparent effort, bullies cram and cram and do whole bookfuls of exercises, stereotypically the 5-volume Calculus Problem Set of Boris Demidovich.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    @Andy Averill

    "…when the Chinese borrow a word like nerd from English, do they write it in Chinese characters or roman letters?"

    They do it either way. Bear in mind that the Roman alphabet has now become a part of the Chinese writing system. If they do transcribe the English words into Chinese characters, that of course markedly changes their look and sound.

    So far, I do not know of any fixed transcriptions of "nerd" — or even ad hoc ones. But it is sometimes written in Roman letters directly as the word looks in English.

  36. Peter Nelson said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    @Victor I know it's a phonetic transcription… I was confused by the statement "It is widely believe that this Shanghainese and Suzhouese term should be written as 憨人 ("simpleton") in characters, but the proper characters are as given above."

    Immediately above was "港宁" (in a blockquote) which surely couldn't be the "proper" characters, but above that was "戆人". Presumably that's what it was referring to; I just didn't figure that out.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    @Bertilo Wennergren

    "The article seems to be a very long and cumbersome way of saying 'The Chinese word for "nerd" is "nerd"'".

    Not at all.

    Lameen and Zubon do understand better what the point of the post is.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

    Yes, Peter Nelson. I was referring to "戆人".

  39. Paul Mulshine said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    As a beer aficionado, I would like to note that I have yet to hear of an English word that catches the exact meaning of the German "gemutlichkeit," which occurs in one of the favored Oktoberfest drinking songs. It describes a sort of fellow-feeling and sense of fraternity, but that's a lot of words to equal one. The same holds true for words like "zeitgeist" and "schadenfreude."
    By the way, what irritates me is the way in which some hypercorrectionists capitalize these wihout realizing the reason they're capitalized in German is that Germans capitalize nouns.

  40. Lane said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

    I know this is Language Log and not Comparative Sociology of High School Log, but I haven't seen anyone (but David Brooks) full-throatedly defend the idea that Chinese kids who are good at sports and attractive to the opposite sex will not tease a socially awkward child who does effortlessly well in subjects like science and math in school but wears awkward big glasses and hand-me-down pants. Is anyone prepared to say that this simply doesn't happen in Chinese schools?

    Veering back towards the overlap between Language Log and Comparative Sociology of High School Log, is anyone confident that the lack of a one-to-one translation for "nerd" means that cool Chinese kids do not disdain or tease less cool but clever kids? That David Brooks's reliance on this "no-word-for" is justified?

    I'm honestly curious. Nobody in an American high school teases a kid for being smart. They tease kids who master nerdy subjects (again, science and math, canonically) and are otherwise not good at things that high-school kids value, partying and sports and gossip and clothes. One guy I admired in school was on the starting defensive line and the first-team Academic Bowl squad. He was not a nerd.

    So if it's true (and I'd bet it is) that Chinese kids will tease a smart but very awkward kid, the lack of a lexeme for "nerd" is just a matter for us to nerd on about here, and not something that justifies a column about educational attainment.

    If it's true that Chinese kids value educational attainment more than Americans do – and it may well be – that's an interesting topic. But "no word for nerd" is neither necessary nor sufficient evidence for this.

  41. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    @Paul Mulshine:

    If "schadenfreude" means "delight at a neighbor's misfortune", then Chinese has an equivalent, which is "xingzailehuo幸災樂禍“, the four characters literally meaning
    "rejoicing-at (another's) calamity, delighting-in (another's) misfortune". This expression is used as one word and my laptop's Chinese dictionary spits out the four characters together when I type out xingzailehuo, which means it's a common "word". If you consider xingzailehuo as 4 words, then one could also say that schadenfreude is 2 words, schaden and freude. Chinese abounds in such 4-character expressions which can often be looked upon as words.

  42. Lane said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    I mean, yes, there's no word (@Paul Mulshine) for gemuetlich, though Danish has hyggelig and Dutch has gezellig. I wouldn't say this is strong evidence for the idea that Americans don't value a cozy night drinking with friends. I know that my Danish mother-in-law will praise a good night when she visits us by saying "It was so cozy." (She's trying to say "It was so hyggelig.") Which just goes to show her that, despite lacking the word, we threw her a hyggelig good time despite not having the word.

  43. John Skookum said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    @Lane: "Nobody in an American high school teases a kid for being smart."

    Maybe not where Lane went to school, but this does happen. It is a particular plague in the black community, where academic achievement is too often treated as acting white and betraying the rest of the black kids who are "keepin' it real" by basking in their ignorance.

  44. Mark P said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    Could it be that part of the problem is that the meaning of "nerd" is somewhat fluid? I know what nerd means. Or at least I think I do when I use it. But don't ask me to give a definition that will satisfy everyone who uses the word. All or most of the definitions I see are at least somewhat close, but different enough that I could imagine having to use different words in another language to achieve a particular connotation. That may well be true of other words, too, but does that show that there is no word in some other language that means what the word in question means?

  45. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    From a Japanese friend:

    Nerd is indeed a very difficult word to translate/find an equivalent word in other culture. In the first place, I don't know exactly what it means – as you yourself asked and came up with a definition.
    As you know, the Japanese answer for untranslatable words is very often to use transliteration (you saw the example ナーズ)which you Americans will find difficult to recognize. But that's what has happened in Japan with all the untranslatable English or any other foreign words ever since the Westernization attempts in the Meiji period. One reason for this was that many Japanese felt that using the foreign word phonetically looked and and sounded smarter, more sophisticated, and more elegant. There has always been this tendency in Japan – even in much earlier centuries. So they won't make the efforts that the Chinese people make trying to find an equivalent word or inventing words in Chinese. I think some of their words are fascinating and ingenious. I love words like 电脑迷 or 傻瓜 or 薯仔.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

    On Shanghainese and Suzhouese [sʯdʊ̆dɤ] / [sɿ53.doʔ2.dɤ13] (pronunciation pace William Steed) 书蠹头 / 书毒头

    Zhou Yunong, who is a native speaker and teacher-scholar of Suzhouese, tells me that her language has a word "du头" (where du is a morpheme for which it is not clear which character should be used and 头 ["head"] is a noun suffix), which is often followed by 脾气 ("temperament"). du头脾气 would mean "[having] a stubborn / inflexible temperament / character"), and du头 by itself has the same meaning, i.e., "stubborn; inflexible". Consequently, Yunong believes that 读 ("read"), 蠹 ("bookworm"), 独 ("single; alone; solitary"), 倒 ("topple; inverted"), etc. — all of which are within the ballpark pronunciation-wise — are not as suitable for writing the morpheme in question as 毒 ("poison; cruel; fierce"). This is also the opinion of the Baidu editors; I provided a link (on 书毒头) to this article in my original post: http://baike.baidu.com/view/7873123.htm Of course, maybe there is NO Chinese character that matches the morpheme in question, which is often the case in topolect writing. In any event, a [sʯdʊ̆dɤ] / [sɿ53.doʔ2.dɤ13] 书蠹头 / 书毒头 ("bookworm; egghead") is someone who is firm in his / her commitment to reading books.

  47. Richard V Simmons said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

    踱头 or 踱头 Shànghǎi /d'oq-d'eu/ is a common Wú word for 傻瓜、呆子. The pronunciation of the first syllable can easily be determined as that of 踱、毒、读 and 独, which are all homophones in Wú and in Common Dialectal Chinese (duk: 定母,uk韵,阳入). Bǎidù glosses /sï̀-d'oq-d'eu/ as '书呆子' with 毒, as 书毒头, because there are witnesses in published literature–all leading back to the Wú region (矛盾, who they cite, was an Wú speaker–浙江嘉兴桐乡人). But see 踱头踱脑 Shànghǎi /d'oq-d'eu-d'oq-naw/ at http://baike.baidu.com/view/7390120.htm, which has the same morpheme glossed as 踱 because the literary witness (also of Wú origin) for this phrase uses that character (《九尾龟》by 张春帆,江苏常州人, see http://baike.baidu.com/view/698235.htm?fromId=102428). Jarringly, Bǎidù glosses the pronunciation of these two as "shū dú tóu" and "duó tóu duó nǎo," which is rather silly because neither of them are Pǔtōnghuà expressions.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

    From Sanping Chen (a native Wu speaker):

    About the Shanghai word 港度 mentioned in one of the comments, I am pretty certain that it should be written as 戇大, because there is a similar word 木大 (my transcription) in some neighboring dialect. The latter is attested in 雜纂二續 attributed to 蘇軾 [VHM: Su Shi, the Song period poet, prose stylist, and statesman] in the form of 木大漢, as I have cited in my write-up about the negative connotations of 漢.

    Many of these modern dialectal words can be traced back to medieval times. The best scholar on this subject that I am aware of was the late Dunhuang 俗語 expert 蔣禮鴻 whose many students are still active.

  49. Douglas Bagnall said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

    Although I am sure it is unrelated and likely apocryphal, it is said that in the jargon of Trobriand Islands cricket, “PK” refers to skilful fielding, and that the term refers to the stickiness of the chewing gum of the same name. Sticky hands catch balls.

  50. CS said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    FYI: Here's an explanation of 電車男 (din6 che1 naam5) from a Canadian's pespective:

    AM I 電車男? (DinCheLaam) – Cantonese Word of the Week!! http://youtu.be/asAcR4Tb3AI

    By the way, 隐蔽青年 may be derived from the Japanese term "hikikomori". This term is about young people who are not employed or in school. As the result, they are in front of the computer all day. It's not about someone being an expert as described in "nerd".

  51. Chris C. said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

    @John — There was a world of difference in my high school between the football quarterback/wrestling team star and me, even though we happened to attend the same AP-level classes and he did at least as well as I did in every subject. I was a nerd; he wasn't. If I was teased merely for being smart, he'd have been too. Somehow, he wasn't. There is, or was, more to being a nerd than smarts alone.

    This is a curious discussion, really. We're talking about a slang term whose English definition has shifted over the decades. Would any Chinese word that "means the same thing" necessarily have undergone similar shifts? Can we not look, perhaps at functional equivalence — which is probably not the right term, but I hope I'm correctly understood.

    I'm pretty sure that the word faded out of use in the 1960s and was only revived with the popularity of the "Happy Days" TV series in the mid-1970s. At that time it didn't necessarily imply scholastic achievement, only that one was "uncool". Richie Cunningham and his friends weren't "nerds" because they did well in school: I don't recall it was never implied that they were particularly outstanding students. They were nerds because they didn't approach Fonzie's level of cool, and that's all. That it is now applied to people who might once have been called "egghead" is only the *present* state of affairs.

    Lane said:

    I know this is Language Log and not Comparative Sociology of High School Log, but I haven't seen anyone (but David Brooks) full-throatedly defend the idea that Chinese kids who are good at sports and attractive to the opposite sex will not tease a socially awkward child who does effortlessly well in subjects like science and math in school but wears awkward big glasses and hand-me-down pants. Is anyone prepared to say that this simply doesn't happen in Chinese schools?

    I submit that, assuming such teasing or bullying occurs, whatever the victims are called by the aggressors, THAT is the Chinese word for "nerd".

  52. minus273 said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:13 am

    The equivalent must be 好学生 hǎo xuéshēng "good student", then, which implies good notes, meekness toward authority and a despicable lack of authenticity.

  53. Robert said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 3:33 am

    Do I take it correctly that PK shares features in common with "pwn"?

  54. Jason said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    @Victor Mair

    It's widely accepted in American anime fandom at least that "Otaku" is Japanese for nerd. It's true that "Otaku" has perhaps more connotations of "weird, creepy loner" than its American equivalent, but it was coined specifically to refer to those weird socially awkward young men who spend all their time watching anime, collecting manga and playing video games, it's the obvious choice. Weeaboos use it as a translational equivalent of nerd, for example the famous (well, internet famous) American anime geek JesuOtaku. Of course, we'd have to hear from the Otaku community about whether they are happy with being glossed as "Nerds" to really settle the question.

  55. Jonathan Wells said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 5:40 am

    @Chris – It's interesting that you would mention "Happy Days." As I've been reading through the comments, I'm thinking, "What exactly does nerd mean in English?" and as you've discussed, how that meaning has shifted. The context in which the term "nerd" arose was specifically American high school culture, which differs even from the Canadian version. I was always surprised as a Canadian how seriously my neighbours to the south took such things as proms and cheerleading and pep rallies. I'm thinking I guess, of the nerd in his natural habitat, the American high school. His position is determined in relation to his peers, all existing within the highly-fraught atmosphere of pubescent sexuality and its expression or repression. This setting is represented again and again in popular American culture, from Rebel without a Cause, to Happy Days, Porky's (although technically dealing with a college environment), down the line to Glee. There's many nuances to the meaning of the word in English. It has to do with how a male student fits into a socio-sexual hierarchy of developing teenagers. There exists a satisfying revenge of the nerds where the most aggressive, sexually successful and dominant males in high school get married quickly, start families, but often are the ones who never leave the town they were born in, while the nerds, the dreamers are the ones whose curiosity and intelligence, while not gaining them any points in the arena of high school dating, lead them on to much more fascinating and rich lives than those who settle down more quickly.

    I'm wondering in this context, what is the opposite of nerd? Is it the "cool" kid, the Fonzie, who oozes primal sexuality and always has a chick in an angora sweater chewing bubblegum, herself a bit of a rebel, hanging from his arm? Or is it the football quarterback who marries the head cheerleader, and lives happily ever after? These two represent the binary of conformity versus rebellion, while the nerd transgresses this on the one hand by not fitting into (or even "getting") the social codes at play in the hallways, while distinguishing himself academically and winning favour with his superiors. Without the social skills to express his dawning sexual urges, he sublimates them in his studies, attention to detail and intense curiosity. Where the young heterosexual man who excels at sports is seen as the winner in the game of high school, the nerd is the sexually ambiguous or worse still, asexual loser. Intelligence is gendered as effeminate, weak, the limp wrist weighed down with the enormous digital watch. Is there such a thing as a female nerd, or is the male version sufficiently emasculated as to render her unnecessary? However, with the workforce shifting towards more highly skilled desk work, away from manual labour and traditional working class occupations, the binary of physical/strong vs. mental/weak is also dissolving. How any of this contextual meaning and historical development of the term would translate to Chinese is anyone's guess. In some ways, the rising dominance of China as an economic superpower is a revenge of the nerds in its own way, where a people often stereotyped as homework-loving and grades-obsessed, are taking their place on the world stage.

    My understanding is that Chinese culture places great value on the scholar, but understanding how, when and by whom this value is recognized and applauded and whether it is aspired to or not would be necessary to make a translation. To be a nerd in the American high school is effectively a disability in many representations, an unfortunate affliction of the overly-smart and fashion-challenged. An important question might be what is high school or the equivalent like for the Chinese "nerd"? Is he ridiculed by others? Has this changed with the cultural revolution and the demonization of intellectualism? Where does his family fit into it? Does he even care, or is he just biding his time, waiting for his own revenge?

  56. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 7:13 am

    @Paul Mulshine

    And yet many editors will correct you if you forget to capitalize German nouns when writing in English. I guess it's a question of whether or not you believe the German word has really become an English word. Even then, it's sort of like Sanskrit words in English: do you use the diacritics or not? For "common" words like "nirvana" and "sutra", you don't (even the Chicago manual will tell you that). But what about Ashoka / Aśoka and prajñāpāramitā, which are fairly well known in certain circles? And should you italicize prajñāpāramitā, highlighting it as a foreign word? I suppose a lot depends on how nerdy you are.

  57. Peter D said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    The 咖 of 怪咖 does not link it to the word geek. 咖 is a recently fashionable word in Taiwan for 'type of person'.

    It started in A咖, D咖 etc. as a translation of A-list, D-list (as in 'A-list celebrity') because the Taiwanese 角 (here meaning 角色) is pronounced like the Mandarin 咖. You often hear it on Taiwanese celebrity chat shows as "我什麼咖啊?" an ironic "who do you think I am?"

    See this blog for an example of extended use, 'what kind of person are you?': http://mioavian.pixnet.net/blog/post/37697432-夏日出遊潮,你是什麼"咖"%3F

  58. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    This post has been cited in the formidable Sinocism newsletter, as the first item under "SOCIETY, ART, SPORTS, CULTURE AND HISTORY" here (March 6, 2013):

    http://sinocism.com/?p=8715

  59. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    @Peter D

    Thanks for this good information about 咖. However, since both Mandarin speakers and Taiwanese speakers have cited 怪咖 as a transcription-translation of "geek", what you point out about the final syllable makes it all the more clever.

  60. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    From Mark Bender:

    "The reason there is no word for nerd in China is because there are no nerds in China. Nerds exist only in America — it is a culture-bound syndrome."

  61. A H said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    "Do I take it correctly that PK shares features in common with "pwn"?"

    Not really, PK in modern Chinese internet usage means vs. Sometimes it seams to mean compete when used in a sentence.

    书呆子 seems to be a pretty good match for "nerd" to me, particularly in the rather old fashioned way I took Brooks to mean nerd. I have always interpreted it as "someone stupefied by books" which is closely related to the awkwardness of "nerd.

    Another English acronym which has worked its way into Chinese in a weird way is "VCR". Popularized by the TV dating show 非常勿扰, "VCR" is now used on TV to mean "video clip". John Pasden at sinosplice pointed this out.

    http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2010/09/08/reclaiming-the-word-vcr

  62. Joe1959 said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 9:03 am

    @ Jonathan Wells

    What a thoughtful and well written comment.

    Of course, whilst the whole “nerd -v- jock” dichotomy makes for good TV, the reality is, as you acknowledge ("These two represent the binary of conformity versus rebellion, while the nerd transgresses this", "the binary of physical/strong vs. mental/weak is also dissolving"), more complicated. One phrase of yours did hit right home however: “Without the social skills to express his dawning sexual urges, he sublimates them in his studies, attention to detail and intense curiosity". I was such a nerd!
    Some would say I still am, but maybe now I’m just a wonk.

    Given other ways I have been described, or, indeed, may have described myself, and looking at some of the definitions given above of "nerd", "geek", and comparable words in other languages, I am surprised that no one has yet asked: "What is the Chinese for Borderline Aspergers?"

  63. Richard V. Simmons said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    Correction to my entry of March 6, 2013 @ 9:17 pm: in the first sentence "踱头 or 踱头" should read "毒头 or 踱头" …

  64. Ji-Soo said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    'One of my correspondents tells me that her Korean friends say something like "pabao" to mean "nerd".'

    The word literally means 'stupid person', and pronounced more like 'bah-boh'. It does not seem to me a good substitute for "nerd," though its (heavy, in colloqiual speech) usage in Korean may overlap to some degree with that of "nerd" in English.

  65. Cameron said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    With regard to the high-school context from which the word "nerd" derives in American English, I think Jonathan Wells, in his comments above is very much on the right track.

    The nerds are the unpopular kids. What makes them unpopular? A complicated question. One of the best and most insightful things I've read on the subject is an essay that Paul Graham put online about ten years ago: http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

  66. Cameron said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    And in the interest of staying somewhat on-topic, here's a japanese translation of the Paul Graham essay: http://www.blog.net/nerds-jp.htm

    One of the things that impressed me about the Graham nerd essay is his focus on suburbia itself as part of the problem. My high school experience was quite different. I went to an urban public school in New York City. The social groups there were not the prep/jock/nerd/burnout standard that would be immortalized in Breakfast Club, and that I would learn about when I went to college and met people who'd gone to suburban schools. In my school the social groups were almost entirely racial: white kids, black kids, Asian kids (these groups were all approximately the same size in my school – it was a very diverse school). But the main difference, I think was that in the Big City the kids' social world was not solely made up of their school. Kids formed a social persona not only in the school context, but also in their neighborhoods. School didn't seem as important, and hence the semi-savage school society had no reason to form.

  67. Jerome Chiu said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    None of those terms suggested in the post and the comments is close enough a translation of "nerd". Perhaps we should follow the lead of those translators of Buddhist texts all those years ago and move away from trying to find the right terms in the native vocabulary (ge yi 格義) towards simply giving them phonetic renderings. So, allow me to be the first "brick-thrower" (for it's certainly a piece of brick and not a piece of jade): ne de 訥的.

    On PK: In the Cantonese-speaking milieu (mainly in Hong Kong, probably where it first emerged), PK has been for more than 20 years a euphemism for pook1 gaai1, which is commonly written as 仆街, even by those who know the standard pronunciation of the character 仆. AFAIK this usage has developed independently and had little (if at all) to do with the PK in the Mandarin-speaking milieu.

  68. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    @Jonathan Wells
    " while the nerds, the dreamers are the ones whose curiosity and intelligence, while not gaining them any points in the arena of high school dating, lead them on to much more fascinating and rich lives than those who settle down more quickly."

    In my old neighborhood, all the kids went to the nationally top-ranked local public high school. All the ones I knew (about 10), from different families, were nerds, top students who didn't date. I don't think "unpopular" was the word They were just nonpopular. They were in very small AP classes. I don't think the large majority of the class (600 students) paid any attention to them. And they were too busy with their high-school homework, which kept them up often past midnight. As far as I could see they were very happy, well adjusted, and well-rounded (tennis, swimming, etc) , mixing among themselves mostly. They included Asians and Caucasians (whites), one African-American (not in the neighborhood). The top student among them was a Caucasian girl (perfect scores SAT) who later majored in economics and Japanese and became a professional translator of Japanese. Very happily married (to a geek with two PhDs). All the others are doing very well and happy. I don't think nerds or geeks (if the words mean overly intellectual) are necessarily teased or despised by their less-intellectual, more sociable, classmates in high school, Chinese or American . They are just classified as such and basically ignored (socially) by the vast non-geek majority of their classmates. It was live-and-let-live.

  69. Steve said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    @julie lee

    Well, YMMV. My own high school experience was somewhere between "Lord of the Flies" and Live-and-Let-Live. In fact, I would have seen a school where a spirit of "Live and Let Live" prevailed as a comparative utopia.

    FWIW, most nerds I knew, myself included, were not particularly well-adjusted, nor very well-rounded, at least while they were in high school. I'm not sure that English has a word for "academically successful students at an American high school who form a close knit band of like-minded students, and who are ignored by but rarely if ever antagonized by the rest of the student body": the closest equivalent would be geek, I think, and while that term is less pejorative than nerd, it still carries with it an implication of at least some social awkwardness and an excessive interest in a traditionally geeky hobby.

  70. Ethan said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

    @steve, julie lee
    My high school experience (1960s large urban US high school) was much like Julie describes, with the added factor that the largest social grouping divide at the time was defined by the counter-culture/anti-war movement. I do not recall that the term "nerd" was commonly used to describe the subset of ~30/1000 per class students in the top academic group. The closest equivalent would have been "those wiz-kids", or possibly "those hippie wiz-kids". We were not teased so much as ignored, or occasionally regarded as another source of trophies, academic rather than athletic, for the display case in the entry hall.

    Google N-grams suggests that the spellings "whiz kid" or "whizz kid" have taken over from the earlier "wiz kid", and I have the impression that the connotation has lost some of its emphasis on academic achievement. Nevertheless I suggest it matches the definition Steve was looking for a word to fit.

  71. Mark F. said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    Words for which nobody can quite agree on the correct definition are the ones most likely not to have equivalents in other languages, since they aren't even exact equivalents of themselves in the idiolects of various speakers.

  72. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    I still first think of the National Lampoon's version, even though, as the Roches put it, "I'm so glad I am one."

    The clique I was in was much more ignored than persecuted, and not bullied at all. I wouldn't hesitate to call us nerds, though.

    There seems to be a confessional theme in these comments. I'm waiting for an LL commentator to say they were a jock or went to the prom with one of the most popular girls or boys in the class.

  73. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    From a German friend who moved to America after WWII as a young adult:

    =====

    David Moser's comment was very endearing but would be applicable only if you were an introvert.

    The one who thought "nerd" was a US Hi School thing is probably right –I find the "culture" of US schools totally foreign and often wonder how kids ever learn anything. In my time we never had time for socializing, forming cliques or concerning ourselves too much about others.

    Gemuetlichkeit is NOT an Octoberfest thing (I lived in Munich for four years), but a house, room, group of people, a village, certain get-togethers — all can be gemuetlich.

  74. Rodger C said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    @Ethan: "Whiz kid" was the normal spelling already when I was a kid in the 1950s, long before "borderline Aspergers" was an English phrase.

    @Julie Lee; "I don't think "unpopular" was the word They were just nonpopular." Exactly my case. I had good friends (including the quarterback, a fact that probably spared me some unpleasantness), but I wasn't everybody's pal.

  75. grace cha said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    Oh, Victor. Where I come from, no one mock those who study hard and even do well academically, at most referring to them as bookworms. The most derogatory term I have ever heard of another top school was "Frankenstein", when my aunt remarked how impossibly well they were doing in science. Actually, my aunt was teaching Mathematics at a girls' school. In Hong Kong at the time, the movie "Frankenstein" was translated to Chinese as "科學怪人".

    Many people I know online wear labels like "nerds" and "otaku" wear them very proudly. They are like badges of honour.

    Rather, we look down on bullies who don't know any better.

    By the way, I was told that there's only one swear word in Japanese, which is "baka(yaro)". That's all. The rest is just to categorize.

    Have a nice day.

    Grace

  76. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    @ Cameron
    You're right. The American public school I mentioned was in suburbia.

    @Steve
    "FWIW, most nerds I knew, myself included, were not particularly well-adjusted, nor very well-rounded, at least while they were in high school."

    A correction to my comment: All the nerd/geek kids I mentioned seemed well adjusted and well-rounded in high-school. The top student among them (the Caucasian girl who later majored in Japanese), however, became mal-adjusted in the Ivy-league university she went to. On a visit, a classmate from our suburban town found her crying much of the time. She said she felt miserable because all her friends in the dorm seemed to have money and do things like go to Europe for a weekend of skiing (fares weren't cheap then), and all the student clubs (this in the 80s) seemed ethnic, for blacks, for Asians, for hispanics, for Irish, etc., and none for plain Anglo-Saxons like herself (she was blond). Later she withdrew from the Ivy League school, finished her degree at our local university, then went on to Japan.

  77. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

    Going over the plethora of supposed Chinese equivalents or parallels to "nerd", it struck me how many of them mean something like "dolt, blockhead, simpleton," etc. This, as we're seeing from so many of the comments to this post, is quite the opposite of what most Americans perceive a nerd to be: smart, but socially inept.

  78. Chris C. said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

    Without the social skills to express his dawning sexual urges, he sublimates them in his studies, attention to detail and intense curiosity.

    I'm pretty sure this isn't actually the dynamic, as I strongly suspect there's much more talk of sex in high school than actual sex. A good many more students than just the nerds have something to sublimate.

    I should have also mentioned that back in my day, not everyone who might have been called a nerd were academic overachievers. Certainly, I was the only one working in the AV room — in the 1970s, the indicator of nerd-hood par excellence — who was in all the advanced classes.

    However, I think you have it spot on about the overall social context.

  79. yy said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    if 书呆子 is not close enough, it seems like you are asking for too much. The term sort of implies that too much book learning makes you stupid, which I presume is the logic behind "nerd" having a possibly negative connotation.

    I've been translating a children's book that about 傻子, two innocent angelic mentally retarded kids who wonder through the cruel and corrupt world unscathed. In Chinese 傻子 means idiot in a cute and nice way. But in English saying "the idiot boy wandered through the hills" does not have nearly the same sense of innocence.

    It's really really hard to translate connotations in any case because of differing cultural assumptions of what "everyone knows".

  80. yy said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    In real life, I think I would just say ji ke, the transliteration for Geek, people who know the neologism will know what you mean.

  81. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    More from Sanping Chen:

    1. Another popular "idiot no.1" term (used also for endearment) in the Yangtze Delta is 呆大, but the Mandarin pronunciation (dāidà) is completely off. The Ningbo-Shaoxing pronunciation is something like gnai-du/dou. The word used to be spoken in Shanghai too, according to the novel below.

    2. For writing Shanghainese, the best "orthography" reference is still perhaps the vernacular novel Hǎishàng huā lièzhuàn [VHM: that's the Mandarin pronunciation; I don't know how to say it in Shanghainese] 海上花列传 (Biographies of the Flowers on the Sea), though more than a century old. The famous author Eileen Chang 张爱玲 once translated it into Standard Mandarin.

  82. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    From Mien-hwa Chiang, the head of our Chinese Language Program, whose first language was, and still very much is, Mandarin:

    =====

    Thank you for sharing the answers. I learned the two words from my son when he was in high school. I have images of "nerd" and "geek" in my head, but don't have Chinese words associated with them.

  83. Lane said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    @Jerry Friedman, I confess, I was also on both the varsity football team and the academic bowl team. But I was considerably better at one than the other; you can probably guess which, since I'm commenting here. I wouldn't call myself a "jock", but I stopped getting teased (which I most certainly was in middle and elementary school) when I got my first girlfriend and at least made a half-decent go at sports. That was my point. America certainly does have a big anti-intellectual streak, but a true "nerd" is more than smart; he is awkward in other domains.

  84. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    @Steve
    "My own high school experience was somewhere between "Lord of the Flies" and Live-and-Let-Live."
    Yes, Steve, high-school can also be a sort of Lord of the Flies place for nerds (intellectual, socially awkward). Sorry you didn't have a live-and-let-live experience. I was several years younger than my classmates in college and lacking in social skills, and was the butt of jokes among some catty girls. Nasty experience.

  85. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    "There seems to be a confessional theme in these comments. I'm waiting for an LL commentator to say they were a jock…"

    I know of one LL commentator who was a jock in high school, also a top student, but since he is too modest to confess, I'd better not give him away.

  86. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    @Lane
    "America certainly does have a big anti-intellectual streak,"

    I'm glad you're the one who brought up the word "anti-intellectual", not me. A younger friend who is a product of the American public-school system (kindergarten thru 12th grade) tells me (a propos of the drying-up of national funding for scientific research, and how researchers are leaving the field left and right):
    "America is anti-intellectual. You can see this in high-school. The stars in class are the jocks (athletes), not the top students." I wonder if that's true of Britain, China, Japan, etc. My impression about Taiwan and Hong Kong was that high-school students lionized the top students, not the athletes. For instance, I told a Chinese friend in an American town about a Chinese professor at the local university. She said: "Oh yes. He was famous in our (Chinese) high school in Hong Kong. He was a brilliant student."

  87. Theodore said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    I just thought of this old (ca. 1993) Saturday Night Live skit: Geek, Dweeb or Spaz.

  88. Terence said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j_mpwKmlJg

    五月天-憨人

    憨人 in Taiwanese is more like fool, definitely not nerd.

    I agree with what was mentioned above that China doesn't have nerds so naturally doesn't have an a equivalent word.

  89. Guy said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    forget nerd, what is the chinese word for jock?? (a concept even more alien in chinese culture!)

    運動男?
    陽光男?
    校草?
    運動男子漢?
    大學體操型男?

    none of then sound quite right…

  90. Wentao said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    @Guy

    Interesting question. To me 运动男 would be accurate in terms of meaning, but has none of the connotations of "jock". 阳光 emphasizes personality, whereas 型男 emphasizes physical appearance, so does 校草. (It seems that aesthetic preferences also differ a lot in China and the US, but that's another topic.)

    When I try to explain this concept to friends in China, I would say 头脑简单四肢发达. At least at where I went to school (a key high school in Beijing), they are not lionized at all.

  91. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

    Julie Lee and Lane: Thanks for ending my waiting.

  92. Victor Mair said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

    According to Chen Wenjie, Di Xueyan of Rizhao City in Shandong says that nerds there are called "xuéchaole / 学chao了", with the character for the middle syllable being unknown.

  93. Robert said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Does the prevalence of the idea of stupidity in the Chinese "equivalents" point to a marker of cultural difference? To the Chinese the central flaw of the package of characteristics that constitutes a nerd is a kind of social stupidity, whereas to the American it is intelligence which makes the individual socially unacceptable. Obviously oversimplified, but…?

  94. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    From a native of Hangzhou:

    ======

    As a matter of fact, there is a phrase in Hangzhou dialect that is the EXACT equivalent of "nerd": 书蠹头 (lit., book worm). This term is used in Hangzhou dialect in the exact sense in which "nerd" is used in English. The English term is used more frequently among high school students than college students or other social groups.

    ======

    We discussed this and related terms extensively above.

  95. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    From a speaker of Ningbo Wu:

    =====

    You missed a term from Ningbo Wu: "a-mo-ling" which means roughly "airhead, clueless bastard." I have no idea what the characters are.

    =====

  96. Richard V Simmons said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    Níngbō Wú: "a-mo-ling" would be 阿木林 or 阿木灵 /āq-moq-lin/ in Shànghǎi. It may come from English "a moron."

  97. H said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    @julie lee:
    I wouldn't say Britain was so pervasively anti-intellectual; many comorehensive schools in inner cities may, but not all by a wide margin. I went to a rural private school; that was governed by the whole class system, and I'm sure many others were too. I personally didn't get bullied, despite not being able (as in physically incapable of) playing sports. What interests me is whether musical capability would make someone a geek, nerd or so on. Anyway, this whole discussion reminds me of http://xkcd.com/747/

  98. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    From The Browser

    http://thebrowser.com/?utm_source=Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f819fe2c60-Newsletter&utm_medium=email

    =========================

    Is There A Word for "Nerd" In Chinese?

    Victor Mair | Language Log | 5 March 2013

    First we define what "nerd" means in English: "It doesn't just signify a bookish or pedantic person, but rather someone who is socially inept or square, perhaps, but not necessarily, because of a consuming commitment to intellectual or technical pursuits." For which the closest equivalent in Chinese is the assimilated English word "geek"

  99. W. said,

    March 30, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    I use "IT男", "理工男" to refer to a nerd in mandarin. And if he's not in computer stuff, simply "有点二". Never felt need a translation.

  100. li said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 7:12 am

    "Nerd" simply could be "guai tai"怪胎 in mandarin.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment