Over time, derogatory labels such as nerd and queer warp, transform and become terms of pride.

Ian Simpson gave a very reasoned response to my recent blog entry about anti-intellectualism in mass culture.  His comment regarded the word, “nerd”: “The term ‘nerd’ is often worn as a badge of honor these days by a substantial subset (myself, included). In the digital age, being a nerd is actually kind of cool. The tech-savvy hacker is this year’s model, and the jocks and buttoned-down frat rats get their comeuppance in the end (at least in the movies)…all the same, being a nerd isn’t quite as bad as it used to be.”

Everything Ian says is absolutely true and on point.

Ian’s response reminded me of two other words that once were considered to be completely derogatory, queer and the “n” word.

A long time ago, “queer” meant someone who was odd or strange, but sometime during the 20th century the meaning devolved to “someone strange sexually,” that is to say, GLBT.  When I was reaching manhood in the late 60’s and early 70’s, queer was a very derogatory term, one that I was afraid to use around any one who was homosexual, or around anyone for that matter, for risk that someone would think I was anti-gay.  I still hate using or hearing the word.  It grates on my ears, like long nails on a chalkboard.

But in fact, queer is no longer a derogatory term among GLBT and enlightened heterosexuals and asexuals.  “Queer as folk”, “queer studies” and “queer theology” all attest to the change in use of the term.  For many GLBT, queer is now a label of honor.

Those benighted non-souls who still hold deep-seated prejudices against GLBT individuals, however, still use queer as a poisonous curse word.

The “n” word has seen a slightly different evolution.  To my recollection, in the 60’s and 70’s, it was never very cool to say the “n” word, although I heard it lot from other whites.  I remember that by 1972, it was better not to use the word, “Negro,” which gave way first to “Black,” and then to “African-American.” 

And yet African-Americans now will use the “n” word with and to other African-Americans, especially in typical male bonding environments, such as sports fields, locker rooms, taverns, dens and back yards.  But it is still an anathema for a non-African American to say, “n—.” It’s about the only word that I am too embarrassed to write out in an essay, although I would write it out if I had a character say it in a work of fiction.  I think my squeamish attitude reflects the attitude of Americans not of sub-Saharan African origin, except for that sizable group of unrepentant virulent racists.

On the surface, it looks as if “nerd” shares the same fate as “queer”: a derogatory term is now worn as a badge of pride by the people it describes, while remaining an insult to those with prejudices and resentments against the group.

But note this important difference in the original meanings of “queer” and “nerd”: In the case of “queer,” its meaning was accurate—someone who is not a heterosexual.  Now a lot of false and malicious baggage that was attached to GLBT people decades ago, and still today unfortunately, also attached to the term “queer.”  But “queer” always means and still means someone who is GLBT.

But the original definition of “nerd” was, and is, false!  “An unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” 

There are plenty of very handsome men and beautiful women who are intellectuals and get good grades.  Many intellectuals and academics are also great athletes.  

The mass media wants us to believe that those who are very smart or academic are not attractive to the opposite sex.  The term “nerd” hasn’t escaped that image.  Just think of phenomena such as nerd love jokes and nerd quotes.  So even when the nerd gets the girl (or guy), the nerd love experience imagined in the mass media is an awkward one.

Of course, as Ian and most avid book-readers already know, that image is ridiculously untrue.

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