I used to have a solid sense of what it meant to be a nerd. It helped that I was one, at least back in high school: an overachieving teacher’s pet who loved musical theater, wore Old Navy cargo pants with Hawaiian shirts, and was never once offered a drink or drugs — probably because I was never invited to party with the kids who had either.
Now the borders of nerdom are in flux. Michael B. Jordan and Kim Kardashian openly profess a love of anime, once the province of unapproachable nerds. You can’t claim to be a nerd on the basis of loving Star Wars or Marvel superheroes; these are the most profitable entertainment franchises in existence, and studios repeatedly cash in on their mainstream popularity. Drake got 600,000 people to stream him playing Fortnite on Twitch with a gamer who seems to do this for a living, and I barely understand that sentence. Were all those people nerds? I don’t think so! What is happening here??
Maybe socially adept people — which is to say chill, fun celebrities — have realized that nerdy interests become “normal” with their blessing. Or that these semi-obsessions are only nerdy when they remain insular and deliberately confounding to newcomers. A nerd’s nerd protects a zone of expertise with their life, hostile to anyone claiming to know it as well as they do. Somewhere along the line, though, we lost this key distinction: it is not the culture you consume or hobbies you pursue that make you a nerd, but the way you engage with these things and represent them to others. Therefore, you could absolutely invest in Bitcoin without being a massive fucking nerd, yet the tendency to aggressively mansplain Bitcoin to strangers on Twitter who didn’t ask for your input marks you as a classically off-putting nerd. Same goes for fedoras.
If people now self-identify as nerds, it’s because we mistakenly allow the word to refer to anyone smart or significantly informed in a certain field. We fear and respect the young so-called nerd, thinking that if we bully them now, they will have the last laugh as famous, wealthy tech geniuses, or at the very least pull some Revenge of the Nerds-type caper that shows us up as dumb, meat-headed failures. This is wrong on all counts. True nerdery is so esoteric as to be basically useless, and the barons of the Internet Age aren’t nerds by definition.
Take Elon Musk, recently crowned “King Nerd” by Stephen Colbert. We’ll put aside Colbert’s misguided reasoning for this — which boils down to Musk’s fairly basic affection for David Bowie and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — and consider the intelligence angle: Is Musk a nerd because he succeeded in Silicon Valley? No, that just makes him another asshole billionaire. He’s a nerd because he’s awkward as shit in front of a crowd and has a sense of humor that would make your dad cringe. Similarly, Jeff Bezos is only a nerd because he decided to get jacked, which is what every nerd does when they feel like they aren’t getting enough respect.
Look, I’m not advocating for a wholesale return to “nerd” as insult except, as I’ve demonstrated, against very powerful and alienating oligarchs. Also, the weirdos who worship them for some reason. And every conservative columnist and troll who talks about “destroying” people with “logic” and “rational” argument. In any case where you’re tempted to say “nerd” with affection, it’s probably more accurate to say “fan.” I get that the appropriation of a slur to give it positive vibes within the targeted community is a fact of language, but at some point we’re going to have to accept that “being caught up on Game of Thrones” is not a personality, and “nerd” says something about a person beyond the stuff they like — about their mindset and how they apply it to the challenge of existence. A nerd is somebody so lost in their own idiosyncrasies they have forgotten how to communicate with the rest of us, which is why the late Stephen Hawking, though a brilliant astrophysicist, wasn’t a nerd: he changed how we think of black holes, but he was prouder of appearing on The Simpsons and loved strip clubs. A true nerd would be Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is oddly compelled to ruin holidays with pedantic tweets.
In the end, this may be the most useful definition of “nerd” — one possessed of a smug quality since they are assumed (or imagine themselves) to be cleverer than the rest of us. It’s DeGrasse Tyson thinking that his Reddit atheism would solve every problem in the world and Silicon Valley dweebs accidentally inventing the bus. It is the man who constantly pops up in your mentions to misdiagnose some ethereal “fallacy.” The harmless geek keeps to themselves, or share obscure joys with others like them, while the nerd must aggrandize and attack. It’s a disposition we could do without, and it sure isn’t getting anyone laid. Ask yourself: “If I were back in school right now, with all the experiences I’ve had, and with all my knowledge, would I remind the teacher they forgot to assign homework?” There’s only one right answer — the other one deserves a wedgie.