On the one hand nerd can definitely still be an insult. Consider this clip of the Philadelphia Flyers player Travis Konecny chirping the Pittsburgh Penguins player Evgeni Malkin last year (the relevant bit comes around 38 seconds in):
(I can neither confirm nor deny whether I like watching Penguins players getting chirped)
Konecny clearly uses nerd as an insult. Yes, he qualifies it by saying “ya fucking nerd,” but he also calls Malkin just “you nerd”. Now, despite what you may think of Penguins players, Malkin is probably the opposite of the traditional definition of a “nerd” – he’s an elite athlete. (But maybe he’s a hockey nerd???)
On the other hand, might not be using nerd to be an insult much anymore. Earlier this year, Dr. Lisa Davidson tweeted about whether geek and nerd are humblebrags.
This led to some discussion which you should check out. The idea is that maybe the word nerd has changed from something that is definitely negative into something that is maybe positive. Before you confirm your intuitions, keep reading. I thought checking a corpus would be good to answer this question (you know, because I’m a corpus linguist). I decided to check the iWeb corpus because it is unedited and so should give us an idea of how nerd is used “in the wild”. The iWeb corpus is very large (14 billion words) and contains language from websites in 6 English-speaking countries (US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) from 2017. There are 38,554 instances of nerd in the corpus. So I took a random sample of 500. Go here to automatically search for “nerd” on the iWeb corpus, and here for an overview of the corpus (PDF).
Here is my sample of nerd instances in the iWeb corpus as an .xlsx file. (The corpus sample only gave me 499 for some reason, so I went and grabbed the first result in the listings to make my list 500.)
Here’s what I found
Based on comments from smart people on my twitter, the categories for each use of nerd are:
- Is it an insult? (yes/no/maybe)
- Is it a sign of solidarity? (yes/no)
- Is it a modifier? (yes/no, more on that below)
- Is it non-modified? (yes/no, also below)
- Is it self-directed? (yes/no)
The first category is what we really want to know. I had only short excerpts of the instances (the expand function wasn’t working in the iWeb corpus for some reason). But based on those, I found that the majority of the uses of nerd are not insults.
It was very tricky to decide whether the uses of nerd were a sign of solidarity and I would love to have someone double-check my work. For what it’s worth I found 174 examples of nerd used as a sign of solidarity, but I took a very strict approach to this category. Others may disagree with my judgments. Of the 174 signs of solidarity nerds, 164 were not insults. But there was one strange case:
good price. Hell, I even got to ruffle the feathers of some uptight nerd who gives the rest of us nerds a bad name. My good deed is
I mean, it’s the second nerd in this sentence that shows it as a sign of solidarity. But the first nerd is the one that was returned in the search. So strictly speaking, this line has to be categorized as an insult and not a sign of solidarity. Moving on…
IT’S NERD TIME
Nerd is used as a modifier! In over 200 cases! For this category, I was strict again and only counted nerd as a modifier if it was either NERD+Noun or Noun+Nerd. I didn’t count any old Adjective+NERD (such as “complete nerd” or “some socially awkward nerd” or “fat nerd”). Instead, I’m hoping this category should tell us more about the changing nature of the word nerd. For example, it is now used to differentiate between groups of people or different types of nerds (and maybe it always has been?). On the one hand, there are Nerd+NOUN examples, so you could be a “gender studies nerd” or a “big basketball nerd” or (of course) a “Star Trek nerd”. There’s even a “Carcass/early Napalm Death nerd” in there 🤘. On the other hand, nerd is used as a modifier in combinations such as “nerd culture” and “nerd glasses” and “nerd talk” and “nerd cred”. Nerd things, basically.
Here are the figures on whether nerd modifiers are used in insults or not.
Just a nerd
The next category – whether nerd was used without a modifier – surprised me a bit. As Jesse Sheidlower noted in a tweet, the modified versions of a word like nerd (a disparagement) are more likely to be positive. So I expected that the non-modified versions of nerd would mostly all be insults. I took a strict stance with modification here – basically only “a nerd” and “the nerd” qualify as non-modified – but I found that only 29 of 95 instances of non-modified nerd were clearly an insult. On the other hand, slightly more instances (36) of non-modified nerd were not an insult. And 30 instances were categorized as “maybe” (again, I’d love a second set of eyes here). You can see some examples of the non-modified nerd categorized as “maybe an insult” below the table.
even named his son Kal-el, the name of Superman himself. Now that’s a nerd. Rosario Dawson # Rosario Dawson just may be the biggest (and hottest
fighter goggles she’s a hoot. Enjoy the video! Zinnycat is described as a nerd, an actress, an artist, a saucy wench, a zesty harlot and
over each other quite a bit. There’s just something about being a geek, nerd, or whatever semi-derogatory- noun you want to go by, that makes you interested
Everyone and their mother is here. # These days, everyone is a nerd. This weekend the convention center held what was possibly Salt Lake City’s most
I am so a nerd
Finally, there were only 107 instances of nerd being self-directed, which is about 20% of the data. It’s probably not surprising that most of these are not insults.
Another interesting aspect of the data is how often the word nerd is used in the titles of companies or personas. There were 86 instances of nerd being used in this way. Some appeared more than once, such as the “Angry Video Game Nerd”. You could probably call most of these humblebrags – or at the very least the any company or person using nerd in their title are not doing so to only disparage/insult themself. But these uses seem to be a special case to me – they somehow feel less natural (is that the right word?). I categorized them all as “Not an insult” only and I left the “Sign of Solidarity?” column blank. I think most of them are signs of solidarity – especially for the companies – but they’re a different sort and I didn’t have the time to re-categorize them. In the spreadsheet you can see these by filtering the “Notes” column and choosing “Title”. Then next to that column I wrote the title of the company or persona.
On top of feeling a bit synthetic, it’s hard to say whether the nerd modifiers are insulting or not. Of course, people who find the term nerd insulting will find these phrases insulting. But they also seemed to be used in a solitary-defining way. Like, this thing has nerd cred (which is good?) but also there are nerd events (which are bad?).
Saturday Night Live has had some fun with the word nerd over the years. In the early years of the show, there was a recurring sketch called “The Nerds” featuring Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. More recently, there’s this one called “Nerd Chat Line” featuring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, as well as Seth Myers and Fred Armisen (holy smokes, that cast is unreal!):
If you want to know more about the word nerd, Ben Zimmer looked at the fuzzy etymology of nerd here. The word isn’t that old. It’s pretty crazy but Clark Kent came around before nerd. To get an idea of how the word has shifted meaning, Mark Peters on Vocabulary.com looked at the broad senses of nerd and nerd-words here.
Some notes and caveats
These are in no particular order. They are just things worth keeping in mind as we interpret this data.
** We should remember that this data comes from online writing. Maybe we can say that certain areas online are places where nerds can safely reclaim the term nerd.
** Relatedly, this data doesn’t tell us anything about how the word nerd is used in spoken language. None of the data is spoken language. Maybe some of the instances of nerd come from quotes, but iWeb is not a corpus of spoken language.
** I only have singular nerd in the data here. Not nerds. I also didn’t search by part of speech, so some cases of nerd in the data are verbs, such as “nerd out”:
Okay folks, I’m going to nerd out a bit but bear with me.
** Can humblebrags only be self-directed? If so, then there are 102 potential humblebrags, or all of the self-directed instances marked as either “Maybe” or “Not insulting”.
** A comparison to other genres would be interesting. How do journalists use nerd? What about fiction authors?
Update Jan. 18, 2022: According to Green Arrow, Batman is a nerd. This ones seems like it’s meant as an insult. These characters often trade barbs – which are good-natured and help to establish Green Arrow as a character with a sharp tongue who isn’t afraid to talk trash to Batman. But I’m going to have to side with Green Arrow – Batman is a total nerd 🙂