"Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit"

« previous post | next post »

A couple of years ago, Geoff Pullum put it this way:

Long-time Language Log readers will recall that we have often said here before that 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.

Yesterday, Tom Scocca was even more acerbic:

Whenever you hear someone explain that a concept is so foreign to this or that culture that people cannot even use their language to describe it, it is safe to assume your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit.

Tom was talking about David Brooks' recent column on "The Learning Virtues", which claimed that "American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary." As Tom notes,

There are multiple dictionary entries for "nerd" in Chinese, including terms for a dull and tasteless person (乏味的人, fáwèi de rén) and for someone excessively enthusiastic about computers (电脑迷, diànnǎomí).

The word for "nerd" in the sense Brooks means—"pedant" or "bookworm"—is "书呆子" (shūdāizi). If you're too shiftlessly American to have an English-Chinese dictionary handy, you can literally type "nerd" into Google Translate and find it.

I've already linked to a longer list of word-for-X debunking than any rational person would want to read, and I'm not in a position to evaluate the linguistic and cultural congruence of Chinese and English words for nerd-like states and actions, beyond repeating Geoff Pullum's advice to watch out for your conceptual wallet. So let me pick up on Tom's observation that "it wouldn't be a David Brooks column if he didn't try to reduce those complexities to a glib and shaky factoid".

In my opinion, David Brooks has an unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece. The trouble is, a central part of his genius is choosing the little factoids that perfectly illustrate his points. No doubt he's happy enough to use a true fact if the right one comes to hand, but whenever I've checked, the details have turned out to be somewhere between mischaracterized and invented.

The emblematic case remains Brooks' claim that it was impossible to spend $20 on dinner in Franklin County, PA, dissected in a Philadelphia Magazine article that Tom Scocca linked to ("Boo-Boos in Paradise", April 2004). Some examples from previous LL posts:

"David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006
"David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006
"David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008
"The butterfly and the elephant", 11/28/2009


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    The English wikipedia page for the "Revenge of the Nerds" movie does not have a link to an equivalent page in Mandarin (although it does have an equivalent in Japanese). What better evidence of cross-cultural untranslatability do you need? Fwiw, google translate thinks the Japanese title means "Revenge of the NARS," with the last bit being its rendering of the katakana ナーズ (not how I'd transliterate those kana but there may be a rhotic/non-rhotic thing going on).

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    On closer read, the antecedent of Brooks' "no such concept" is vague. No nerds, no teasing, or no teasing of nerds? At least one commenter on Scocca's post thinks his proposed Mandarin translations of "nerd" are unidiomatic or fail to capture significant nuance present in the English (does Scocca really think "nerd" is merely a synonym for "pedant" or "bookworm"?), but I'm certainly not qualified to judge that debate. I assume first-generation/bilingual Chinese-American high school students probably have an idiomatic way or ways of rendering "nerd" with all of its fine AmEng contextual nuances in mother-tongue discussions among themselves, but the way(s) in which they do so may be diaspora innovations which not have made their way back across the Pacific.

  3. Adrian S said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

    As someone who learned English as a second language, I do see their point though. Kind of.

    When I started learning English I had quite a bit of trouble assimilating the concept of a "nerd", and even now I'm not sure I fully understand it. I myself have been called a nerd on various occasions, sometimes because I appeared to possess more knowledge about computers than my interlocutors, sometimes because I demonstrated a preference for books and/or logic and reason. I accepted the "accusation", because, hey, I *am* a scientifically-trained software developer after all, so it was just an accurate observation as far as I was concerned.

    But the way it was phrased sounded vaguely derogatory, which I didn't understand; why would computer knowledge or a scientific mindset be worthy of derision by themselves? And once the nerd label was accepted, the accusers seemed to expect me to also be socially awkward, which I'm not, and like things like comic books and Star Trek, neither of which I care for. In my native culture there is no single concept that groups all these things together, let alone a word to express it.

  4. Jeffrey Palmer said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    呆子 and 书呆子 are both acceptable for the concept of nerd. A good friend of mine from XiaMen says they have word in their local dialect that is also appropriate, it sounds close to yizi.

  5. jf said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

    I still like George Bush's (almost surely apocryphal) quote: "The French don't even have a word for entrepreneur."

  6. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 12:33 am

    I am not sure if the French and English uses of "entrepreneur" are the same. At least in France, "entrepreneur" means 'contractor', as in 'building contractor', 'plumbing contractor', and such.

  7. Dominik Lukes said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 3:15 am

    Funnily enough, Czech doesn't really have a term for "nerd" and doesn't really have a good concept of what it could mean, either. I've come across this problem often when translating. http://slovnik.cz/ which generally gives plenty of equivalents for most obscure terms, gets only to a part of the meaning of nerd with "šprt" which really only means "swot" (somebody who studies a lot to please the teacher). All the other equivalents are variations on "idiot" or "socially awkward" but never together with clever. "nerdy" is then translated as "stupid" which is plainly wrong. The authors were trying to capture the notion of "smart" but in a bad way. And Czech really has relatively few lexicalized ways of doing that (though enough phraseology) outside the school. We have the same trouble with geek and dork. Equally it doesn't have the word or really the concept of "jock".

    Now, I wouldn't be surprised if some new English-language-TV or gaming influenced term wasn't on the horizon or already active in some subculture. But I don't know of one.

    This doesn't invalidate the critique of Brooks' story telling. Czechs aren't seen as an R&D threat so who care whether they have a word for "nerd".

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 3:25 am

    I'm not convinced that even other dialects of English have a word for nerd. The closest I can think of in British English is boffin, which has rather different connotations. Nerd is just too tied in to the stereotypes of a specific culture.

  9. michael farris said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 3:38 am

    There's no really good translation of 'nerd' in Polish either. About as close as you can get is kujon (which is closer to 'grind', that is a compulsive studier) there are also lots of words for various kinds of losers but no combination of smart, socially awkward and into nerd activities. The category of person exists but there's no particular name for them. Similarly, bullying exists in Polish schools but there's no go word for the perpetrators or the phenomenon in general.

    The American word has been borrowed by some and gets some ghits but it's not widespread at all.

  10. joanne salton said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    None of the Chinese words mentioned above is a very good fit for "nerd" – how could they be? The word has become the obsession of seemingly the whole American nation, and is a multifaceted monster. Let us be thankful most other countries can't quite find a perfect synonym. (and of course the ability to quibble about exact synonyms means that this is one form of "bullshit" that people can always get away with).

  11. Jason said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:20 am

    @Peter Taylor

    British English has "Anorak" and "Nigel" as near equivalents of "Nerd", as in "Look at those Anoraks at the end of the platform, spotting trains", or "That guy who always talks about WoW is such a Nigel."

  12. LDavidH said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:26 am

    Very interesting thread – and proving again how elusive the whole idea of synonyms and expressing a certain notion is. I'm sure most of us agree that "nerd" is mainly an American phenomenon, and therefore most languages wouldn't have an exact equivalent. That doesn't mean we can't express the idea if we have to.

    In Swedish we have the word "lill-matte", which denotes "daughter of a pet-owning family" ("matte" denotes the lady pet owner, "lill-" is a diminutive; "lill-husse" is the male equivalent). I have yet to find an English term with the same emotional and relational connotations; but obviously the phenomenon exists in the UK as well, and can be expressed in other terms.

  13. John said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    @Peter Taylor, @Jason said: British English also has 'spod'. And BrE and AmE have 'propellorhead'.

  14. leoboiko said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 5:25 am

    @Dominik: (Oh I just love vowel-less Czech words!) My childhood in Brazil was similar—at least where I lived, kids like me weren't called yet "nerds" but "CDFs" (either cabeça-de-ferro “ironhead”, or, more likely, cu-de-ferro “iron asshole”). But the implication of "CDF" was only that the person studied (or, if adult, worked) too hard, to the point of making everyone else look bad, and probably were too deferential to the teacher (boss). That goes against the grain of Brazilian jeitinho “knack”, the cultural disregard for the letter of law and distrust of taking things too seriously.

    But by the time I was a teen (the 90s) the word and idea of "nerd" had naturalized well and surpassed "CDF", with the accompanying implication of pop culture obsession (and the reverse implication that, if you like comics or games etc, you're a nerd).

  15. Östen Dahl said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    What LDavidH does not mention is that Swedish has taken over the word "nerd" although spelled phonetically: "nörd". It is even listed in the official spelling dictionary of the Swedish Academy, but with the definition "narrow-minded and ridiculous person". Last year, this definition resulted in a protest list signed by some five thousand Swedish self-identified nörds.

    When I googled for "nörd", I stumbled on the website sw.bab.la, where the Swedish word is back-translated to English as "wimp, wonk, geek" — "nerd" is apparently not an alternative.

  16. spherical said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    I don't think it is very relevant whether any language has a word for nerd in the specifically American sense. If the definition goes so far as to include a love of Star Trek, then it's ridiculous to expect other cultures to have the same concept.

    I don't have any hard facts to support my position, but I would bet my left butt-cheek that the snubbing of academic overachievers by the less cerebrally endowed (which is what Brooks is really denying for China with his foray into vulgar linguistics) is a pretty universal phenomenon in youth cultures around the world.

    [(myl) Yes, this is the key point. The issue that concerns Brooks is attitudes towards engagement with schoolwork, not engagement with Star Trek.

    And long before nerd, we had other relevant terms in English, e.g. these quotes from the OED's entry on grind:

    1893   W. K. Post Harvard Stories 11   Come now, old grind, do take a day off.
    1896   in Westm. Gaz. 11 Aug. 8/1   He is neither a ‘grind’ nor a ‘sport’.
    1897   A. Barrère & C. G. Leland Dict. Slang,   Grind,..a plodding student who keeps aloof from the usual sports and pastimes.
    1908   R. L. Dunn W. H. Taft 210   He was keen to learn and if he had not been so lusty outside of the house, he would have been called a grind.

    Or these, from the entry on swot:

    1866   Routledge's Every Boy's Ann. 220   ‘Oh, you swat!’ met us at every turn.. and yet the real truth was, that neither Jack nor myself did ‘swat’.
    1899   ‘Martello Tower’ At School & at Sea 40   Sometimes a knot of us..would persuade a good-natured swot to construe the forthcoming lesson to us.

    If there are no emergent oppositions in Chinese schools between "grinds" and "sports", or similar divisions, it would indeed be news. And given the social groupings, there will surely be many words or phrases, both positive and negative, for describing their members.]

  17. LDavidH said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    @Östen Dahl: yes, you're right; I just didn't think of them being equivalents (and I live in England nowadays, so I'm not exposed to colloquial Swedish as much as I used to).

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    I note with interest that Mark Liberman uses "factoid" in its original sense, i.e., something that resembles a fact but is not, in fact, a fact. That's what Norman Mailer meant when he coined the word, but it seems to have become a distant second meaning. More often, it's used to mean a trivial fact.

    [(myl) The OED glosses the suffix -oid as "Forming adjectives with the sense ‘having the form or nature of, resembling, allied to’, and nouns with the sense ‘something having the form or appearance of, something related or allied in structure, but not identical’".

    In the case of factoid, I've always interpreted this as referring to assertions that belong in the technical category of bullshit rather than falsehood — that is, assertions whose author doesn't really care about truth or falsehood one way or the other. That's also clearly what Mailer had in mind:

    Factoids..that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.

    A factoid in this sense may or may not be true. This is different from the newer sense of "trival fact", true enough.]

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    spherical has identified the key question here although I think he/she may resolve it too quickly. "Nerd" is a proper noun describing a particular subculture / social type that does not necessarily exist in all human societies across time and space. Whether the "same" subculture/social-type exists in a given society whose native language is not AmEng may depend on how tight or loose a test for sameness you are using, which is a methodological question without a determinate answer. Pre-1492, none of the major European languages had specific ways of talking about species of flora and fauna that were indigenous only to the Americas, but as their speakers crossed the ocean they innovated as they needed to – either borrowing local words (skunk) or applying by analogy existing words whose prior referent might actually have been a different species (buffalo). Beyond my earlier example about Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the U.S., to the extent the Sinosphere has sociologists who write scholarly papers in Mandarin about the social structure of U.S. high schools, they probably need within their own professional jargon a word or phrase that quite closely tracks the nuanced U.S. sense of "nerd." That might or might not be the same word or phrase used in Mandarin more generally to describe whatever one might consider a more loosely analogous phenomenon seen in the local high schools. Criticism of the "no word for X" meme can conflate the rather distinct questions of whether speakers of language Y do, in fact, currently have a standard lexical way of referring to such-and-such thing or phenomenon (answer: maybe yes, maybe no – you'd have to investigate) versus whether they could and would innovate such a standard lexical way of doing so if in the future it became necessary/useful (either in a specialized subculture or more generally) to talk about that thing or phenomenon on a regular basis and/or could and would come up with some sort of comprehensible ad hoc gloss or paraphrase if and when someone needed to describe the thing/phenomenon for the first time to someone else (answer: almost certainly yes).

  20. leoboiko said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    I think there are really several different strands—

    – Resentment about people who study too hard, and/or achieve too much (naturally, the definition of "too hard" will change depending on culture);
    – Resentment about people who follow rules too strictly;
    – Resentment about people who suck up to authority, or are perceived as such;
    – Derision of socially awkward people (particularly vicious in places where the in-school social game runs strong);
    – Derision of people with socially disdained hobbies or interests (comics, sci-fi, action figures, but not football or guitar playing or gardening).

    I think the American "nerd" can encompass all that (to different degrees), whereas local adaptations will emphasize different aspects more or less (so that in Japanese schools there is plenty of disdain for the socially awkward, but having high grades is actually a source of prestige (I hear), which isn't true for Brazilian schools.)

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 9:28 am

    Contra myl, while I have no doubt that chinese schools have various sorts of social/subcultural divisions, and that attitudes toward (or achievement in) formal schoolwork might be a salient dimension along which those divisions would exist, I would not start with the default hypothesis that those divisions map even loosely onto those that emerged in typical Anglo-American schools perhaps no earlier than the 19th century. They might or might not, but I would not agree that it would "indeed be news" if they don't, while trying to steer between the Scylla of lazy exoticizing-of-the-Other and the Charybdis of equally-lazy assuming-everyone-else-in-the-world-is-more-or-less-the-same-as-us.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    Re older equivalents (or semi-equivalents) of "nerd": In my college days we used "wonk" (origin glossed as reverse-spelling of "know"), but I have an idea that it may have been specific to Harvard.

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    @Robert Coren:
    I don't know when you were at Harvard, but when I was there (1955-59), "grind" was the rather dully descriptive word that we used. And there was also "cube," but that had a somewhat different meaning, being a square raised to the next power.

  24. Jayarava said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    On the other hand there really is no collective term for emotions in Pāli. There are lots of words for individual emotions, but they don't form a category of experience different from thinking/thoughts. Emotions and thoughts get lumped together under the rubric of 'citta'. This does pose translation difficulties for English speakers who do make a fairly clear distinction between thoughts and emotions – usually we end up chosing 'mind' or 'heart' for citta, though neither captures the sense of the Pāli.

    I think it unlikely to find a word for 'nerd' in Pāli which was never a living first language, and hasn't changed since the 12th century when Burmese users discovered Sanskrit grammar and 'improved' it.

  25. mollymooly said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    I think "nerd" has ceded some semantic ground to "geek". Though I knew the circus-freak sense of "geek", I first heard the socially-inept sense applied to Jeffrey Dahmer. It seems to been reclaimed and rehabilitated a good distance since then.

    I don't know that the idea of "jock" exists in most Irish schools, or under what name. A few that play rugby, probably. The fact that most secondary schools are single-sex is a factor.

  26. Dick Gregory said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    Once again, the problem with the French is that they do not have a word for déjà vu.

  27. Eric said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    @leoboiko:Thank you for linking this.

  28. jf said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    @Ralph Hickox: When I was at Yale a few years later (1974-1978) the woed was "weenie."

    @Marie-Lucie: That's what makes it both funny and partly true. The transmutation makes it almost thought-provoking.

  29. KeithB said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    In British English you have "twerp", which according to JRRT, was based on a real person, T. W. Earp, "the quintessential twerp" [JRRT's Letters].

  30. Taeyoung said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    @ leoboiko: "I think the American "nerd" can encompass all that (to different degrees), whereas local adaptations will emphasize different aspects more or less (so that in Japanese schools there is plenty of disdain for the socially awkward, but having high grades is actually a source of prestige (I hear), which isn't true for Brazilian schools.)"

    Maybe, but they also have a word for swots and grinds: がり勉 (gariben).

  31. hector said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    When I was in public (primary) school in suburban Toronto in the fifties, the word for a good student was "brown," short for "brown-nose," implying "nose stuck up an authority figure's asshole." Out-of-it students were called "farmers," implying that they had recently arrived from the countryside and didn't understand big-city ways.

    And @ LDavidH, "daughter of a pet-owning family" — what? I have no idea what's being implied. Please, please explain.

  32. BZ said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

    "- Derision of people with socially disdained hobbies or interests (comics, sci-fi, action figures, but not football or guitar playing or gardening)."

    I don't think that's quite right. None of these hobbies make you a nerd, nor do any of them are exempt from making you a nerd. Rather, what makes you a nerd is knowing or caring too much about something to the point of (apparent) compulsiveness. If you know the names and achievements of every single member of, let's say the New York Giants, you are still a nerd. If you simply like football, you're ok. If you play football, you're cool. If you happen to like watching sci-fi, you're probably ok. If you've seen every episode of every Star Trek series, you're a nerd. Action figures are a symptom of nerdiness (you obsess over something so much that you collect merchandise related to it) not the cause (whatever it is you're obsessed over).

  33. Faldone said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:07 pm


    If I might speak for a fellow David I would tell you to imagine a Platonic family comprising two adults, one male and one female, and their off-spring, again one male and one female. The female off-spring is the daughter of the family. This construction would echo the construction of a phrase like "the president of a company". If this Platonic family is extended to include a dog, a cat, or some other domestic animal it would be a pet-owning family. LDavidH is, of course, free to correct me if this is not what he meant.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    The New-Haven-specific sense of "weenie" is not synonymous with "nerd" although it might be interchangeable with grind/swot or possibly "gunner" (used by some of my law school classmates and presumably reflecting the dialect of their undergraduate campuses). And in a sufficiently elite-college setting (with, um, modern grade inflation) "weenie" etc. is not necessarily what Brooks needs. At e.g. Yale there are plenty of non-weenies whose grades are as high or higher than stereotypical weenies but who also spend more time conspicuously socializing or doing various extracurriculars and making their achievement of high grades seem (regardless of the actual truth) more effortless than that of the weenies. The phenomenon Brooks I think is really talking about is the thing you can see in many American high schools where it is perceived as a more desirable and high-status life – both by fellow students and by a reasonable fraction of adults in the community — to be a B student who is also captain of the cheerleading squad and gets asked to all the popular-kid parties than to be an A student no one wants to sit with in the cafeteria. Does that same dynamic occur in Chinese schools (remember, "Mandarin" is a pejorative in English but not necessarily in Mandarin, except of course for during the Cultural Revolution)? I dunno, and I don't know if Brooks knows, but I'm not prepared to assume that that particular high-school dynamic evolved on the prehistoric savannah and is now genetically encoded such that it must manifest in China in approximately the same way it manifests in the U.S.

  35. Stan said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    Venn diagram of nerds, geeks, dorks, and dweebs.

  36. Charly Baltimore said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    @KeithB: Kurt Vonnegut defined a "twerp" as "someone who
    bites their own bathtub farts."
    May have been what JRRT was describing. ;)

  37. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    I've begun and then erased at least four different comments. Can someone help me out, here?

    What I've been trying to express is that the discussion, and Brooks's argument, involves the distinctions/ambiguities about words for less cultural features (like snow) and words for more cultural features (like squire). It's interesting and contentious to wonder about how comprehensibility relates to language with regard to things which we assume to be universal or near-universal in human experience while, in contrast, it's not-so-interesting and is trivial to point out that a language foreign to some culture will lack a term describing some feature unique to that culture.

    Everything that's interesting falls in the middle, the problem of translation. To assert that translation is impossible is silly; and to assert that language comprehension doesn't require cultural context is also silly.

    Arguments like Brooks's aren't really about language and, really, the invocation of language is sort of a red herring. He's taking a subject that is already complex — an analysis of certain differential cultural features — and making it even more complex and ambiguous by using language differences as a reference. That there's no close linguistic match doesn't necessarily tell us that there's no close cultural match.

    I think this is why the "check your wallet" advice is so apt: when it's hand-waving on top of hand-waving, then the likelihood that someone is confused or attempting to confuse is relatively high.

    Nerd is such a culturally specific term that it's just not even remotely useful for this purpose. It's less then useful. If Brooks is interesting in contrasting cultural attitudes about academic achievement, then he should do so directly and, if he absolutely must bring linguistic comparisons into it, then he should at the very least restrict himself to terms that very narrowly involve academic achievement.

    Anyway, mostly I think that Brooks is revealing that he's confused. He's just not a very smart person. It should have been obvious to him that arguing about the significance of words concerning cultural features is close to being tautological.

  38. iching said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 4:56 am

    @jayarava I was interested in your comments about Pāli, particularly the assertion that Pāli was never a first living language. Is this generally accepted as linguistic fact I wonder? I notice the Wikipedia articles on Pāli, Maghadi and other Prakrits (Middle Indo-Aryan languages) are a bit more circumspect about the question. And your comment that (Pāli) "…hasn't changed since the 12th century when Burmese users discovered Sanskrit grammar and 'improved' it" is intriguing. Did you mean to imply that Pāli was invented in the 12th century and did not exist before then? I note that the Wiki article on Prakrits says "classical Sanskrit grammars do not consider it as a Prakrit per se, presumably for sectarian rather than linguistic reasons." I am not accusing you of sectarianism and I do not take everything in a Wiki article as undeniably true, but I am interested in following up any authoritative sources if you have them to hand, just out of curiosity about the linguistic facts. Whether or not Pāli was an artificial "invented" language really doesn't matter to me otherwise and I am quite relaxed about contemplating the possibility.

  39. Marek said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 5:53 am

    Since Dominik mentioned Czech, I may just as well mention Polish: Polish as used by 21st century teenagers does have a word for nerd… it's "nerd".

    But the stereotype of socially awkward people who are into computers, play Dungeons & Dragons, etc. has been around since the 90's, years before the English loanword started being used to refer to them.

    The statistics of socially awkward tech-savvy people being teased by their party-going sport fan colleagues probably weren't impacted in any way.

  40. Mr Punch said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    It was my impression that China pretty much ran the "teasing the nerds" thing into the ground during the Cultural Revolution.

  41. B.Ma said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

    "Nerd" has entered the colloquial Cantonese I speak. Besides its regular meaning as a noun, it also serves as a verb meaning "to study hard". An equivalent in English might be "to nerd up".

  42. Vanya said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    @Dick Gregory,

    The TV show "Community" recently made a joke where an angry German student yelled at an American: "I wish German had a word to describe the pleasure I feel at viewing your misfortune!"

  43. LDavidH said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 3:58 am

    @hector: Sorry, I've not been paying attention to the thread. Faldone is right: my family is exactly what he described. To our pets, I am "husse" and my wife is "matte", our daughter is "lill-matte" and our son is "lill-husse". The terms are more relational/emotional than technical, and imply that you are fond of your pets (thus would not be used about farm animals), but would be used in most contexts (except probably legalese, where emotions shold be excluded and thus "owner" will do).

    I enjoy trying to find Swedish words that simply "do not exist" in English – just because you so often see the opposite: "X has no word for [English word]"!

  44. boynamedsue said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 5:33 am

    Romanian has no word for 'pebble'. I don't understand what is wrong with nowordfers, there are thousands of them that are entirely valid.

  45. boynamedsue said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 5:41 am

    BTW, I should clarify, they also lack the concept of a pebble, though of course it can be explained. I was showing a group of 16 of them pictures of pebbles, and they did not immediately distinguish them as having any quality that would separate them as a separate category from small stones.

  46. Brett said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    @boynamedsue: As a native English speaker, I do not see pebbles as having any quality that distinguishes them from small stones either. A stone can be too large to be a pebble or too small, but I don't know exactly where those boundaries are, and there's nothing qualitatively different about pebbles from other small rocks.

  47. Michael Buckland-Smith said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    @Brett. As another native English (BritEng) speaker, I've always assumed that the distinguishing feature of a pebble was that it had been worn smooth by erosion, perhaps more likely by water than wind. Moreover, they are small enough for several of them to be held in a cupped hand, but I'm not a geologist, so stand to be corrected.

  48. boynamedsue said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    Brett, pebbles are smooth and often oval, due to the effect of water on them. Perhaps you come from a region far from the sea?

  49. Dave Grill said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    "Wenn Sie hier einen größeren Streber finden, bitte zeigen Sie ihn mir." German has a nice analog for nerd, "Streber".

  50. Brett said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    @Michael Buckland-Smith, boynamedsue: Merriam-Webster online says that pebbles are usually rounded, but gravel always. I guess I agree on the first one; the prototypical pebble I imagine in my head is smooth and ovoid. However, I would agree with M-W that this is by no means a requirement. On the other hand, I would never think of gravel as prototypically rounded, much less that roundness was a requirement for gravel constituents, so I don't trust either of those definitions all that much.

    And I have lived near the seashore at times, although I admit I didn't spend much time on pebbly beaches.

  51. etv13 said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    @Brett: I am with you on that Merriam-Webster definition of gravel. "Pea gravel" yes, rounded; the gravel that goes down in roadbeds, not.

  52. Mike said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

    At least when I was growing up, a person obsessed with Star Trek was called a "geek" – a nerd was someone who was into something like science or reading.

    If you know how many hit dice a gelatinous cube has, you're a geek.

    If you voluntarily took Latin classes, you're a nerd.

  53. boynamedsue said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 12:54 am

    Pebbles can be part of some types of gravel, according to the MW definition. But anyway, the image of the Ur pebble you have in your head does not exist in the mind of a monolingual Romanian speaker as they have no word or collocation that is used to describe a small rounded stone.

    Though you can simply say "small rounded stone" ("pietricica rotunda") when describing a pebble, people when shown a pebble and asked what it is will generally say "a small stone", where an English speaker would use the term "a pebble". This is because the subset of stones that are "pebbles" in English are not represented with a separate term in Romanian, so the speaker does not identify the object as part of a separate category. To all intents and purposes it is not merely the word pebble that is lacking, but the very concept.

    This is why the nowordfers are both real and important, despite lingusits noit wanting them to be for some reason.

  54. Ø said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    I used to think that pebbles were necessarily small but not necessarily smooth, until some years ago I saw a dictionary definition that contradicted me on both counts.

    Purveyors of small paving-stones seem have their own narrow definition of "gravel". The stuff that we wanted for our driveway was gravel to us, crushed stone to them; their gravel looked more like coarse sand to us.

  55. boynamedsue said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:29 am

    That's interesting 0, where are you from roughly? Just to test my theory that people who live far from the sea are less likely to think of a pebble as rounded.

  56. michael farris said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    I grew up on the coast of the gulf of mexico and to me a pebble is just a very small rock, not necessarily smooth and/or rounded.

  57. zythophile said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    Pebbledash (is this sort of exterior wall covering known outside Britain?) generally involves stones most people would define as gravel – very small, sharp stones – rather than the archetypal pebbles found on a pebble beach.

  58. Ken Brown said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    You can have big pebbless! And we have a word for an immense collection of them: "shingle". But I was brought up within walking distance of the sea.

  59. Weekend link dump for March 10 – Off the Kuff said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    […] to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece. The trouble is, a central part of his genius is choosing the little factoids that perfectly illustra…. No doubt he's happy enough to use a true fact if the right one comes to hand, but whenever […]

  60. AndymAndym said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    There is no verb "to wonder" in the Spanish language. Spanish speakers use the future tense to express this uncertainty. "I wonder if he is at home" would be said, "Will he be at home?" ("Estare en casa?")

RSS feed for comments on this post