Losers Redefine Nerds and Geeks

When I was growing up nerds and geeks were mocked and shunned. Today they enjoy a certain caché, especially among people who like getting things done properly. I think we Asian Americans can take the credit.

When I was in grade school kids lacking in social skills and personality were called nerds. There wasn’t a lot of animosity behind the term, just benign scorn (if scorn can be said to be benign). I mean, kids didn’t necessarily dislike nerds, just didn’t want to hang out with them. The term did have some association with studiousness because nerds often seemed to focus on their studies to the exclusion of other pursuits, but the term mostly denoted zero social skills. It was possible to be a nerd without excelling at math or science.

Geeks were kids who combined edgy personalities with extremely poor fashion sense. Many geeks were highly effective human beings. They were standouts at acting, dancing, singing and carpentry. They could even be good at sports or at beating the crap out of other kids, but their personal styles made people uneasy — mainly because they seemed totally oblivious of the impact their appearance and demeanor had on others. I secretly admired and envied them for being able to care so little about what others thought.

Well, it turns out that I am now a nerd and a geek. So is my handsome, athletic, intelligent and successful younger brother. Why? In this age of political correctness those terms have become code words for Asians among a certain segment of Americans. What segment? Let’s just say they aren’t the winners of the world.

When someone is better than you at things like using modern conveniences, attaining impressive educational credentials, solving complex problems, embarking on business ventures that require all your energies or acquiring brainy skills that few people have any hope of mastering, you become an envy magnet. Your presence is especially abhorrent to marginally competent people who, naturally, want to assuage their sense of inferiority by projecting their own sense of alienation on those who are more capable.

But of course when unimpressive mediocrities keep using words like nerd and geek to refer to highly competent, educated, attractive successes, they imbue the words with highly positive associations. Not only do they lose their original sting, but they also help elevate non-Asians who were once marginalized by the same terms.

Now the question is, what do you call people who call their superiors nerds and geeks? Nothing.