Names, networks, and norms

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Our lengthy discussion of Chinese word(s) for nerd has suffered from some lack of clarity about the English word, which has a variety of senses, referring to various aspects of complex social and psychological phenomena. And both the word-meanings and the social realities have changed over time.

In the Op-Ed that started us off — "The Learning Virtues" — David Brooks returned to one of his favored themes, the cultural differences between "Westerners" and "Asians":

Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

Among the outward and visible signs of this inward and spiritual spiritual division, Brooks lists a lexicographic factoid:

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

Brooks is summarizing his understanding of Jin Li's recent book, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West. What does he mean by nerd in this context?

From Li's book (p. 189):

Most striking and unbelievable (to me, who came from an entirely different culture) is the research finding that those who try to learn and to achieve are tormented with most peer harassment. In fact, there are terms reserved for students in middle school and high school who are interested, motivated, and make an effort to pursue knowledge. They are infamously called "nerds," "geeks,", "dorks," and a host of other derogatory names. This type of peer harassment occurs not only in the United States, but apparently in many Western cultures. In the English-speaking countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the terms popular in the United States also enjoy popularity. In Britain, the equivalent term for nerd is swot, in Germany — Schreber, in France — Bouttoneaux, in Holland — stuud, and in Israel — hnun.

Li feels that what she calls "Nerd's Hell" is a unavoidable consequence of the way that education is perceived in "western" culture: she has a section titled "Inescapable Dooming of Nerds in the West". This strikes me as broad-brush stereotyping at best.

No discussion of nerditude can ignore the influence of the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds (and its three sequels), which positions "nerds" as a sort of college un-fraternity, attacked by the frat boys and forced to band together to beat their oppressors at their own games. But the real situation in middle schools and high schools in the U.S. is substantially more complex and subtle.

Thus we learn from B. Bradford Brown et al., "Parenting Practices and Peer Group Affiliation in Adolescence", Child Development 64(2) 1993, that

[E]thnographers have consistently discovered a diverse array of peer groups in American high schools. An elite group similar to Coleman's (1961) "leading crowd" is always found, although it is often divided into two somewhat different crowds. "Populars" are portrayed as socially competent individuals with a strong commitment to academic achievement but also moderate involvement in delinquent behavior and illicit drug use. "Jocks" are quite similar but less academically oriented and more focused in their drug use on alcohol, which they sometimes use to excess. Counterposed against these crowds is a more alienated group — "druggies," "burnouts," "greasers," etc.-that is not only heavily involved in drug use and deviant activities but also inattentive to schoolwork and often hostile toward school adults; yet, group members seem to maintain a fairly strong self-image. Balanced between these groups are the "normals," average, or "in-between" students who seem to avoid deviant activities but otherwise are not clearly distinctive on any particular trait. In most studies there is also a group of high achievers, the "brains" or "eggheads" or "intellectuals," who thrive on academics, forge close relationships with school adults, and studiously avoid drugs and deviant activities. Their self-confidence is bolstered by academic achievements but also eroded by their marginal standing in the peer status system. Most schools also feature a socially inept crowd — "loners" or "nerds" — whose members are generally low in social status and, consequently, self-esteem. Their academic achievement levels are variable, but they seem to shy away from deviant activities.

It's worth noting that ethnographers studying American schools have also consistently noted group relationships to many other factors, including race and ethnicity, parents' socio-economic status, gang membership, and so on. The alignments of all of these factors, as well as the names for the groups, are quite diverse, and can differ widely in different kinds of schools. And I'm sure that looking at other countries would multiply the complexities.

But in any case, on Brown's description of the situation in American secondary schools, the "nerds" are not the academically and intellectually serious students, but rather the socially-inept ones; the "popular" crowd is serious about schoolwork; and the "brains" or "eggheads" are "marginal" in status, not "tormented with most peer harassment".

We get a similar picture with a different emphasis from Mary Bucholtz, "'Why Be Normal?': Language and Identity Practices in a Community of Nerd Girls", Language in Society, 28(2) 1999:

Eckert 1989a offers an account of the social organization of a typical suburban US high school. She found that students' social worlds and identities were defined by two polar opposites: the Jocks (overachieving students who oriented to middle-class values) and the Burnouts (underachieving students who were bound for work, rather than college, at the end of their high-school careers). Yet the dichotomy that separated these students also united them in what can be understood as a single community of practice, since the ultimate goal of members of both groups was to be COOL. The difference lay in how each group defined coolness. Not all high-school students, however, share the Jocks' and Burnouts' preoccupation with coolness. A third group, the nerds, defines itself largely in opposition to "cool" students – whether Jocks, Burnouts, or any other social identity. Nerds stand as the antithesis of all these groups, a situation that Eckert succinctly captures in her observation, "If a Jock is the opposite of a Burnout, a nerd is the opposite of both" (1989a:48). But despite the structural significance of the nerd in the organization of youth identities, few researchers have examined its implications, and those who have tried have fallen far short of the mark in their analyses. Thus the sociologist David Kinney, in a rare study of nerds (1993), argues that, in order to succeed socially, nerds must undergo a process of "recovery of identity" that involves broadening one's friendship network, participating in extracurricular activities, and heterosexual dating: In short, they must become Jocks. Another scholarly treatment (Tolone & Tieman 1990) investigates the drug use of nerds in an article subtitled "Are loners deviant?" – in other words, are nerds really Burnouts?

What both studies overlook is that being a nerd is not about being a failed Burnout or an inadequate Jock. It is about rejecting both Jockness and Burnoutness, and all the other forms of coolness that youth identities take. Although previous researchers maintain that nerd identity is invalid or deficient, in fact nerds, like Jocks and Burnouts, to a great extent consciously choose and display their identities through language and other social practices. And where other scholars tend to equate nerdiness with social death, I propose that nerds in US high schools are not socially isolated misfits, but competent members of a distinctive and oppositionally defined community of practice. Nerdiness is an especially valuable resource for girls in the gendered world of the US high school. […]

Nerds, of course, attain empowerment in very different ways than either Burnouts or Jocks. One of the primary ways they differ from these other, more trend-conscious groups is through the high value they place on individuality. Compared to both Jocks and Burnouts — who must toe the subcultural line in dress, language, friendship choices, and other social practices —  nerds are somewhat less constrained by peer-group sanctions.

For girls, nerd identity also offers an alternative to the pressures of hegemonic femininity —  an ideological construct that is at best incompatible with, and at worst hostile to, female intellectual ability. Nerd girls' conscious opposition to this ideology is evident in every aspect of their lives, from language to lexis to other aspects of self-presentation. Where cool girls aim for either cuteness or sophistication in their personal style, nerd girls aim for silliness. Cool girls play soccer or basketball; nerd girls play badminton. Cool girls read fashion magazines; nerd girls read novels. Cool girls wear tight T-shirts, and either very tight or very baggy jeans; nerd girls wear shirts and jeans that are neither tight nor extremely baggy. Cool girls wear pastels or dark tones; nerd girls wear bright primary colors. But these practices are specific to individuals; they are engaged in by particular nerd girls, not all of them.

The OED's gloss for nerd mentions three three broad and diverse senses, which span the categories that Brown et al. called "nerds" and "eggheads", and add the alternative idea of "obsessive" interest in "an unfashionable or highly technical" subject (which is no doubt connected to what Simon Baron-Cohen calls "systemizing"). I've introduced numbers to emphasize the differences:

[1] An insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; [2] a person who is boringly conventional or studious. Now also: spec. [3] a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.

And Benjamin Nugent (American Nerd: The Story of My People, 2009) reduces this to two categories, one recasting [3] as "machinelike" intellectualism, and the other recasting [1] in terms of social exclusion rather than social ineptness:

I believe that there are two main categories of nerds: one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machinelike, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machinelike. […]

The second type of nerd probably consists equally of males and females. This is a nerd who is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion.

All of this suggests to me that the diverse senses of nerd are connected by a chain of rather loose social and psychological associations among notions of status, introversion/extraversion, prosociality, social class, intellectual intensity, and so on.  Presumably the same dimensions of variation exist in Chinese schools, though Jin Li doesn't think that they play any role in social organization:

According to Xinyin Chen, an expert in Chinese children's social development, there are only two peer groups in Chinese school yard, at least within Mainland China: the good student group and the antisocial/delinguent group.

This corresponds roughly to the "elite group" and "alienated group" that "ethnographers have consistently discovered", according to Brown et al.  But I'd be very surprised to learn that this is the whole story in China, any more than it is in the U.S. And indeed, here's what I read in Xinyin Chen, Huichang Chen, Violet Kaspar, "Group Social Functioning and Individual Socioemotional and School Adjustment in Chinese Children", Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2001:

The results suggest that, despite adults' discouragement and control, most children in China form natural groups based on their interests and that these groups, once established, may constitute an important socialization force that contributes, independently and/or in interaction with adults' influences, to socioemotional and cognitive development. These results, along with the findings from research programs in Western cultures (e.g., Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Kinderman, 1993) and several studies in other cultures (e.g., Leung, 1996; Palmonari & Pombeni, 1989; Sherer, 1991; Sun, 1995), suggest that children's peer groups may be a common phenomenon and may serve similar functions in different cultures.

Chen's research has focused on groups with "prosocial-cooperative functioning and antisocial-destructive functioning", but only (as far as I can tell) because the effects of this dimension are viewed as socially important, and not because there are no further distinctions to be made. Thus in Xinyin Chen, Lei Chang, Yunfeng He and Hongyun Liu, "The Peer Group as a Context: Moderating Effects on Relations between Maternal Parenting and Social and School Adjustment in Chinese Children", Child Development 2005, social network analysis was used to divide a sample of Chinese schoolchildren into groups:

Following the procedure developed by Cairns et al. (1989) and Kinderman (1993), 117 groups (50 male groups, 54 female groups, 13 mixed-gender groups) consisting of 505 participants (94.4%) were identified in the sample. Twenty-four children did not belong to any group and thus were excluded from the analyses of group effects. […]

Based on the data from teacher ratings, peer nominations, and school  records on social and school performance, two factors were extracted at the group level, representing prosocial-cooperative (peer-assessed sociability, teacher-rated competence, peer acceptance, leadership, academic achievement) and antisocial-destructive (peer-assessed aggression, teacher-rated acting out, peer rejection, learning problems) orientations.

Again, this division corresponds well to the basic "elite" vs. "alienated" division reported for U.S. schools — and neither of these categories, either in China or in the U.S., are "nerds". To understand what's really similar or different about this aspect of youth culture in relation to education, we'd need to see the results of some careful ethnographic investigation in China.


  1. L. said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    Anecdotally, Chinese high schools in many major municipalities (like the one I went to) are divided by academic rank — that is, the proportion of students in a graduating senior class that make it past the annual college entrance exam, and how many scores qualify for Tsinghua vs the local college. Since admissions to high schools are determined by achievement rather than geographic school district, this causes a self-selection process in that all the high-achievers tend to cluster into a few elite high schools. The high-achievers tend to share very similar qualities personality- and behavior-wise. Most, if not all, students in such a place will be oriented toward academic achievement (or, rather, preparing for the university entrance exam) to the exclusion of everything else. If you observed at one of these high schools looking for typical American high school social groups, you might be tempted to buy Li's argument.

    But social hierarchies still exist, of course, as does bullying behavior, etc. They tend to be oriented along family social differences. The scions of party officials tend to hang out together, along with their groupies and hangers-on. Same for the children of wealthy merchants, etc. The bullying come from these differences instead.

  2. kdede said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

    Yes, more ethnographic investigation in China! That can only be for the good. I wonder if what Jin Li has poorly identified in American schoolyards is the nascent formation of the strange anti-intellectualist strain in US society? Anti-intellectualism is surely valued in some parts of US society. I bet that is what she is finding so different in comparison with Chinese society. It's unfortunate that she chose to identify it with "nerd".

  3. Pompeius said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    The German word is "Streber", by the way. :)

  4. julie lee said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    "Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self."–David Brooks

    No, not for China. That description of Asians was the old ideal in China. Learning was to serve virtue. That was the ideal and the theory. In practice, years of arduous learning among the young served, rather, the practical purpose of preparing one for the imperial civil-service examinations and from that, jobs. For Chinese individuals, these jobs in the government were the chief source of wealth and prestige. A recent poll of college students in China revealed that the vast majority gave as their top job-preference a job in the civil service. Since (as I understand it) most of China's enterprises are controlled by government officials, i.e., most of the wealth of China is in government hands, officials (local or national) still have great access to personal wealth and prestige (even if it is mostly through corruption), and so the top job-preference among college students in China is still a government job. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

  5. Naveed Chowdhury said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    Worthy of note is the difference between the two definitions given for "jock"; first we read that they are "quite similar [to populars] but less academically oriented and more focused in their drug use on alcohol, which they sometimes use to excess," but then we see them described as "overachieving students who oriented to middle-class values." These definitions are very nearly polar opposites, and it appears to me that both of them are woefully incorrect in that they completely ignore athletic accomplishment, by far the most important condition of jock status.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    You cannot be a jock without athletic prowess. My question is what to call the female student who is an outstanding athlete. BTW, it is possible to be both a "jock" and a "brain", at least in the schools I went to. When I was in high school and college around half a century ago, there was no category of "nerd" in the schools I went to, but I'm pretty sure that, if there had been, one would not have been able to be both a jock and a nerd, though one could probably have been both a brain and a nerd.

    [(myl) As a matter of word-usage in the American secondary-school context, "jock" seems to have drifted free from its athletic origin some time ago. According to Penelope Eckert, Jocks & Burnouts: Social categories and identity in the high school, 1989:

    Although Jocks and Burnouts take their names from athletics and drugs, respectively, these are neither necessary nor sufficient criteria for category membership. The term Jock originated in sports, which are so central to the high school culture. Indeed, varsity athletes are seen as serving the interests of the school and the community, representing all that is thought to be healthy and vigorous in American culture. […] The high school Jock embodies an attitude — an acceptance of the school and its institutions as an all-encompassing social context, and an unflagging enthusiasm and energy for working within those institutions. An individual who never plays sports, but who participates enthusiastically in activities associated with student government, unquestioningly may be referred to by all in the school as a Jock.

    In addition, jock seems to be used in compounds of the form "X jock" to mean "someone who is good at and committed to X", e.g. "band jock", "math jock", "computer jock". And oddly, the entry in the Cassel Dictionary of Slang

    includes the sense "a stupid, unimaginative person, a nerd".]

  7. MsH said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    Can the meaning of such things be assessed at all without followup into adulthood? Especially Bucholtz' paper would seem to point to the personal qualities of a 'nerd' being likely to result, if the effects of bullying and isolation are not too disastrous, in an interesting and independent adult. And I am extremely curious about the "Twenty-four children [who] did not belong to any group and thus were excluded from the analyses of group effects."

  8. Axs said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    One more definition: In the world of online pornography, "nerd" means "performer who wears glasses." Just thought you all should know.

  9. julie lee said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    "For girls, nerd identity also offers an alternative to the pressures of hegemonic femininity — an ideological construct that is at best incompatible with, and at worst hostile to, female intellectual ability."–Mary Bucholtz

    By this definition novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937)("The Age of Innocence") would have been a nerd in her youth. She had a formidable intellect and wrote in secret for fear of disapproval from the ladies of her upper-class New York social circle. She was a female intellectual when female intellectuals were frowned upon by the arbiters of society. Female intellectuality was also widely frowned upon, mocked, and often nipped in the bud by Chinese of my parents' generation during early to mid-20th century. Of course, some of this disapproval and skepticism lingers on.

  10. Alexander said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

    The definition of "Streber" given on the German Wikipedia is parsecs away from English "nerd".

    "jemanden, der sich ehrgeizig und egoistisch durchsetzt, um in Schule oder Beruf weiterzukommen:
    [~ 'someone who asserts himself with ambition and egoism, in order to get ahead in school or his career']

    As a teenager in the 80s I found it impossible to accurately convey what nerdhood is to any my German relatives, young or old. Part of the reason why is related to why Brooks's use is so wrong: being smart or working hard are not necessary features of the category, and the social features relate subtly to many aspects of Americanism.

    [(myl) This also illustrates the problem with dichotomies of "Western" versus "Eastern". Even the situation in any one country is complex and diverse.]

  11. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

    I was *in* high school when [Eckert 1989] was published, and disagree pretty strongly with her gloss on "jock". Of course, I wasn't One Of Them, so perhaps I missed some social interaction that would have changed my view.

    [(myl) Do you think that there might be local variation in how such words were/are interpreted?]

  12. julie lee said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

    @Victor Mair says:
    "My question is what to call the female student who is an outstanding athlete."
    Exactly my question. Maybe call her a "female jock". Just like the gracious Chinese courtesy-title for women, NU SHI (女士)“female gentleman". I think a lot of people still think a jock is an athlete.
    I never knew exactly what a jock was. From the various passages in which the word "jock" appeared, I gathered a jock was someone
    1. male,
    2. super in sports,
    3. a hit with the girls, therefore strong and handsome,
    4. not bright.

  13. JW Mason said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

    , jock seems to be used in compounds of the form "X jock" to mean "someone who is good at and committed to X", e.g. "band jock", "math jock", "computer jock"

    And conversely, when I was in high school in the late 1980s, "nerd" unambiguously meant someone clumsy and lacking skill in whatever domain. The term "computer nerd" was explicitly used to mean someone who was helpless with computers.

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    I guess this would just be a recapitulation of the ethnography, but it's very difficult to discover the meanings and uses of ambiguous social category terms while using those terms (by people very familiar with them) and what would be better would be to first try to identify actual versus perceived social networks, in conjunction with things like perceived and self-identified values and habits, and then look for correlations to these relationships to shared use of these terms.

    What I think we'd find is that none of these terms are monolithic, they vary by place and time, and even within a specific context they are variously applied. Furthermore, few or no persons exists only with one affiliation (real or perceived) and what's more likely is that individuals have a few important affiliations which both themselves and others sort of holistically evaluate to one main social affiliation. Because there are actually, both real and perceived, other operative affiliations and identities, simplistic oppositional/exclusive definitions of these terms are doomed to be very inaccurate and often misleading. There will be exceptions to pretty much every proposed rule.

    Nerd has strong connotations of social ineptitude … but not always. Jock has strong connotations of athletic participation … but not always. And if you lop-off those exceptions, you've altered the gestalt meaning of these words in important ways.

    And that bit about nerd and "social ineptitude" also raises the important point that different social groups define the signature traits of different social groups differently. What is "social ineptitude" to one group might well be merely that the other group is out-group to them. On the other hand, some people really are very inept socially. If there happens to be one term that is just a bit more widely understood to mean "socially inept" than other terms, then those people will be grouped with them, even if, in fact, they are not socially grouped with them and this definition doesn't fit that group's own internal view of themselves. There are high school kids who are nerds to the kids who other kids think of as nerds — that this is so undermines many assumptions about how we can understand what these words mean.

    And it strongly calls into question whether people are going to be reliable when they introspect about their own experience in order to answer these questions.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 12:22 am

    MYL: I don't know about Garrett, but I certainly thought there might be local variation in these words. I don't think Eckert did, though (unless by "the high school" she meant the one high school she studied). I've certainly never heard "jock" except for a dedicated athlete (often with the suggestion that there was nothing else to the person), or with a specifying word and probably some irony, as in "computer jock".

    On regional variation, Jin Li's book says some have used "dork" for "nerd" in the sense of "over-studious person". To me it means something like "awkward person" in any sense of "awkward". But here in northern New Mexico, it seems to just mean "fool".

    I liked "Twenty-four children did not belong to any group and thus were excluded from the analyses of group effects." And from everything else.

  16. Alexander said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 6:53 am

    Incidentally, the Wiki definition of German "Streber" is exactly the meaning that my cohort in the 80s had for "tool". But it seems to me that this gets used very differently by the young students around me now, in ways I don't understand.

  17. Vanya said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    ""Populars" are portrayed as socially competent individuals with a strong commitment to academic achievement"

    Based on my high school I would say there was no social stigma at all in getting good grades – indeed inability to maintain at least a B average marked you as a loser or potential "burnout", but expressing intellectual curiosity for its own sake was certainly not "cool", engaging in any intellectual activities that weren't graded was also not "cool" – so playing chess, D&D, joining debate club, reading the New York Times at lunch, etc. would mark you as a nerd. For the most part the sort of academic achievement that gets praised in Asian society falls squarely into what would be "popular" in Brown's analysis – learning exactly and only what the system requires you to learn and parroting it back as accurately as possible. So the difference between the West and China is not as big as Brooks wants us to believe. What is striking about Asia to Westerners, and Americans in particular, is probably the limited role that sports plays. A popular kid in a US high school doesn't have to be a star athlete but is expected to be at least a competent role player in some sport.

  18. Michael Johnson said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    I won't say that this is necessarily overlooked by what anyone has so far said, but it seems to have not come strongly out of the background. Some terms refer to identities. An identity is not something that is definable, even in a family-resemblance way. Sarah Palin might in fact count as a feminist, because she identifies herself so, even if she's anti-abortion, etc., because that's how she identifies herself. I'm not saying that's so, but there's a definite way many people have of looking at identities where you count as queer, or feminist, or straight, or whatever, even though you might have the exact same qualities as someone who does not count as that (e.g. MSM vs. gay). As a former grad student, I definitely know many with strong nerd-identities who were as close as one comes to jock-behavers in grad school. It's an identity that persisted through changes that made them alpha dog or whatever. I hope I've been somewhat clear? I feel I'm not making sense.

  19. joanne salton said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    Superficial cultural knowledge is often worse than none. As Julie Lee says the reality in China – and the past was similar to the present – is that academic prowess is in fact a rather straightforward ticket to success. The ideal of abstract self-cultivation and the practical reality are in fairly strong opposition, and Chinese children are greedier for good grades and their obvious beneifits than Western ones, and desiring them is less "nerdy" (cheating to get them seems especially cool, I suggest). Obviously a lot of resentment towards working hard can be generated amongst the less able students, but it is generated by slightly less powerful groups than in the Western model.

  20. julie lee said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    @joanne salton says: "Chinese children are greedier for good grades and their obvious beneifits than Western ones,"

    Let's not forget Chinese parents, or Asian parents (in Asia and America), who are greedy for good grades for their children. Though in my stay in London I saw English parents just as greedy. Egged on by parents no doubt (because of the general atmosphere of parental competition, even desperation), elementary independent ( i.e., privately funded) schools in London were preparing their students, from the age of five, for Oxford and Cambridge, I found.
    As Bertrand Russell once wrote: "The competition for grades is the competition for jobs." (Pardon the name-dropping. I've read Russell's popular books, not his technical ones.)

    @ Keith M. Ellis says: " Because there are actually, both real and perceived, other operative affiliations and identities,"

    Quite. What makes a "nerd" a nerd is often in the eyes of the beholder. A "nerd" to the "normals" may be a "brain" to the "brains".

  21. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    It's so curious that nerds in the West are often thought to be smart, while many of the terms that Chinese suggest as equivalents in their languages indicate very nearly the opposite. There is a tremendous disconnect between nerditude in America and the Chinese perception of it. Then again, it's amazing that — as Mark Liberman pointed out above — the Cassel Dictionary of Slang includes as one of its definitions of "jock" "a stupid, unimaginative person, a nerd" — which is precisely what many Chinese seem to think a nerd is.

    Judging from my conversations with high school students and undergrads, nowadays in America a jock is generally perceived to be a male athlete who is usually not very bright ("jock" is short for you know what, and you know what that is supposed to protect; the word "jockey" has a completely different etymology, even though it refers primarily to a man who rides horses, i.e., is engaged in a sport), but who often is attractive to the opposite sex; nerds are though of as smart but socially inept (can be male or female); and geeks are people who are deeply into all sorts of esoteric subjects and socially more functional than nerds.

    Of course, all of these categories can vary with time and place, and sometimes — often for purposes of irony — can get turned on their head, but by and large "jock", "nerd", and "geek" signify different things (though the latter two categories tend to get blurred more than the first one).

    For the purposes of our present discussion, what one wonders — after all of the investigation we've done — is whether any of these American categories map neatly onto comparable social categories in China. I'm doubtful that they do.

  22. Rubrick said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

    One of my more memorable high school moments was when alumnus Tim Metcalfe, who wrote Revenge of the Nerds, paid a visit, and told me "Ah, you're a nerd!" (Boy was I!) He then took pains to explain he meant it as a compliment.

  23. mike said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    In this discussion there seems to be an emphasis on the intellectual capabilities (or not) of nerds and jocks and so on. To me, nerdiness is not just intellectual ability (else everyone in academia and high-tech would by definition be a nerd), but an interest — and especially an _intense_ interest — in certain hobbies: radio, computers, comic books, cosplay, Star Trek, Renaissance Faires, chess, etc. By which I mean, nerds apply their intellect and time to hobbies or pastimes that others might consider highly intellectual (chess), not worth such intense interest, or maybe just a little silly (Star Trek, ComicCon). Stated more succinctly, nerdiness is about being passionately interested in something that's not high-prestige to others, i.e., not just not cool, but sort of anti-cool.

    Anyway, just to add to the mix.

  24. Chris C. said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

    My actual experience of the term "jock" from high school in the late 1970s is entirely at odds with the definition given by Cassel. They were most definitely the athletes; formations such as "math jock" were simply never heard. It almost certainly varied by region.

    As I attended an engineering school afterward, no one even tried to distinguish "nerds", "jocks" or anything else.

    As far as mid-1980s categories go, this probably provides an adequate summary: It purports to represent the Chicago area, but I'd guess it's actually more reflective of Southern California. (The preview cut off at the point where I tried to make that a hyperlink, so I didn't post it that way.)

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    The only conclusion I can draw from all of the preceding is that American English, like Mandarin, German, and what-have-you, has no equivalent to the word "nerd".

  26. julie lee said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:02 am

    Re. Chinese Nu-shi 女士 “female genntleman" (gentlemaness), a widely use courtesy-title for women:
    Come to think of it, it has parallels in European languages. E.g. Senora from Senor, Kaiserin from Kaiser, Mrs. (Mistress, from Mister, Master).

  27. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: grammar, wordplay, Canadianisms | Wordnik said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman explored nerditude. Johnson took a laughing look at the overzealous Quebec language police and explored metaphors in […]

  28. Chingona said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    Jock simply means Scotsman. Silly bloggers.

  29. What is this thing you call “nerd”? | Savage Minds Backup said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 1:55 am

    […] as Mark Liberman points out in his latest post on the topic, even in the US the term “nerds” is much more complex than Brooks makes it out to be. Liberman […]

  30. Nick Mizer said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    A bit late to the game here, but I think people on this thread might be interested in the "geek anthropology" panel we're putting together for this years American Anthropological Association conference. The CFP is at: Abstracts are due tomorrow (which is why I said it's a bit late to the game), but if anyone would like to participate, send something our way!

  31. bks said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    Bertrand Russell, 1932, searching for the meaning of Nerd:

    In these days, under the influence of democracy, the virtue of co-operation has taken the place formerly held by obedience. The old-fashioned schoolmaster would say of a boy that he was disobedient; the modern schoolmistress says of an infant that he is non-co-operative. It means the same thing: the child, in either case, fails to do what the teacher wishes, but in the first case the teacher acts as the government and in the second as the representative of the People, i.e. of the other children. The result of the new language, as of the old, is to encourage docility, suggestibility, herd-instinct and conventionality, thereby necessarily discouraging originality, initiative and unusual intelligence. Adults who achieve anything of value have seldom been "co-operative" children. As a rule, they have liked solitude: they have tried to slink into a corner with a book and been happiest when they could escape the notice of their barbarian contemporaries. Almost all men who have been distinguished as artists, writers or men of science have in boyhood been objects of derision and contempt to their schoolfellows; and only too often the teachers have sided with the herd, because it annoyed them that a boy should be odd.


  32. Marc N said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    A bit late to the game, but there is, as far as I know, no French word "Bouttoneaux". French common nouns are not capitalized, for one thing. And for another, the word doesn't exist. There is a word "boutonneux" which is somewhat similar. But it means "pimply", used to describe a young man with acne. Nothing to do with nerds really.

    A single instance on Google: "je suis un gamin, adolescent bouttonneaux et insignifiant" (I'm a kid, a pimply and insignificant teenager/youth).

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